“Marie-Anne, do not move!” exclaimed Willy Ronis, who was running downstairs to get a trowel, as their little stone house in Gordes, Provence, needed endless repairs, when he saw his wife washing, naked, at their simple iron sink, surrounded by cracked stone. He captured her image from behind. To her right, a water pitcher sits on the floor and a window opens onto their garden. The summer sun caresses her back, gently delineating her curves. The 1949 picture, which feels a little like a nude by Pierre Bonnard, became known as Le Nu Provençal (The Provence Nude) and was the photograph that made Ronis’s reputation.
In France, Ronis’s work is much loved, with its focus on ordinary people and ordinary life, its sense of humanity, empathy, and grace—the anti-sensational, as it were. An exhibition of more than two hundred photographs at the Pavillon Carré de Baudoin, in the 20th arrondissement—a village-like section of Paris and one of Ronis’s favorite places to photograph—offers a chance to see his own greatest-hits selection. When Ronis was eighty-five, he organized what he considered the essential part of his work, about 600 images, into six large albums, accompanying each picture with handwritten comments. They were donated to the MAP, the French Ministry of Culture, and in the current exhibition, “Willy Ronis by Willy Ronis,” the albums can be consulted with Ronis’s handwriting on interactive tablets, while his words are reproduced in type on the walls next to his photographs.
In the spring of 2009, just before Ronis, a long-time friend, turned one hundred, I interviewed him in his Paris apartment. Until the end of his life, later that year, he was alert and engaged in his work, with vivid memories of his long career. Like that of his contemporaries Robert Doisneau, Édouard Boubat, Izis Bidermanas, and Sabine Weiss, Ronis’s work came to epitomize a certain humanist photography that flourished after the devastation of World War II, when people in Europe were hopeful that together they might build a better world.
Ronis was born in 1910 to a family of Lithuanian Jews—the same background as his friend Izis. Ronis’s mother was a pianist. His father ran a portrait studio on Boulevard Voltaire in Paris, and made what Willy described as “a type of photography that naturally I viscerally despised. He did not have any visual culture. He was a good craftsman, that’s what he was.” However, because of his father’s terminal illness, Ronis had to take over the store and for four years did the kind of work that he detested: sentimental marriage photographs, christenings and communions, retouched studio portraits. “As soon as my father died, in June 1936,” said Ronis, “I abandoned the studio to its creditors and started photographing in the street. One month after, it was the formidable July 14, 1936… I was in the street with a camera that I took from my father’s display window before the creditors seized everything… a Zeiss Ikonta Bellows camera, with a Tessar lens and 4.5 aperture.”
“It was the street I was interested in,” Ronis added, where he felt the pulse of life. Inspired by the Münchner Illustrierte and the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, the great German illustrated magazines that showed daily life before Hitler’s rise to power, he fulfilled his dream of becoming a street photographer, an uncommon calling at the time: his pictures were published in Vu, Regards, and the communist daily L’Humanité—he had joined the Communist Party at fourteen—which reflected his belief in social progress. “Even if I knew early on that photography alone would not be able to change the world, I felt that the work of contemporary photographers could serve as a witness to contemporary life,” Ronis explained.
Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication/Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine/Dist RMN-GP/Donation Willy RonisWilly Ronis: The Provençal Nude, Gordes (Vaucluse), 1949
Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication/Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine/Dist RMN-GP/Donation Willy RonisWilly Ronis: Lorraine in Winter, 1954
Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication/Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine/Dist RMN-GP/Donation Willy RonisWilly Ronis: Place Vendôme, Paris, 1947
Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication/Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine/Dist RMN-GP/Donation Willy RonisWilly Ronis: The Zoo Circus of Achille Zavatta, Paris, 1949
Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication/Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine/Dist RMN-GP/Donation Willy RonisWilly Ronis: Lorraine-Escaut Factory, Sedan, 1959
Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication/Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine/Dist RMN-GP/Donation Willy RonisWilly Ronis: Fondamente Nuove, Venice, Italy, 1959
The photography milieu was small then: he quickly met and befriended Brassaï, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Chim, Robert Doisneau, and André Kertész, and bought a Rolleiflex with his first savings. He later abandoned the large-format camera for a Universal Foca with a 50mm lens, a French equivalent of the Leica, which he thought was too expensive.
Because he was Jewish, in 1941 Ronis had to flee occupied Paris for the South of France, the “zone libre.” He survived doing odd jobs such as stage-managing a traveling theater troupe, creating sets for a movie studio in Nice, and painting jewelry with his wife, the painter Marie-Anne Lansiaux. He came back to Paris, after its liberation, in October 1944: “There was a whole new blossoming of illustrated magazines that needed photographers who knew how to work,” said Ronis.
Although originally he photographed strikes, marches, and demonstrations on assignment, Ronis also made more personal pictures on the side: “I never went out without my camera, even to buy bread.” From the start, he was especially interested in Parisian scenes, and many of his classical, intimate photographs were shot in his hometown.
As it turned out, the images he made for himself rather than for the magazines were the ones where his spirit and delicate, exacting compositions are most apparent. Eighty-one of the earlier images were included in his first book, Belleville-Ménilmontant (1954), with a beautiful text by the poet Pierre Mac Orlan. The pictures were made between 1947 and 1950 in an out-of-the-way neighborhood in Paris: “It was a village on the hills, with a marvelous light… The tourist buses never went there, there were no monuments, people kept to themselves.”
He also photographed in many more Parisian neighborhoods, even in the beaux quartiers, the chic and central neighborhoods with their stately buildings, jewelers, and design stores. In Place Vendôme, a woman’s legs, blurred by movement, scissor across a puddle, with the obelisk reflected upside down in the water. She was a cousette, sewing for one of the haute couture studios, and on her way to a quick lunch before resuming work. An intimate picture of a couple made on Place de la Bastille, at the top of the July Column, reveals a panoramic view of the sky and the capital’s roofs and monuments displayed behind the balcony’s wrought iron curlicues. They kissed just as he was looking. In another, a little boy in shorts with a radiant smile runs home, a baguette under his arm. In a photo from the late 1970s, people are lost in conversation on public phones in the then-new Châtelet-Les Halles metro station, their faces hidden by the curvy cabins—a wry comment, even more so today, on the isolation and anonymity of contemporary life. “I had the vague sensation that I was witnessing the savage meal of a group of carnivorous plants disguised as phones to better deceive human beings,” Ronis commented.
Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication/Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine/Dist RMN-GP/Donation Willy RonisWilly Ronis: Châtelet-Les Halles station, Paris, 1979
Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication/Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine/Dist RMN-GP/Donation Willy RonisWilly Ronis: The Forge at Renault Factory, Boulogne- Billancourt, 1950
Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication/Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine/Dist RMN-GP/Donation Willy RonisWilly Ronis: Place de la République, Paris, July 14, 1936
Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication/Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine/Dist RMN-GP/Donation Willy RonisWilly Ronis: The Little Parisian, 1952
Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication/Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine/Dist RMN-GP/Donation Willy RonisWilly Ronis: Demonstration in Vimy-Lorette, France, 1949
Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication/Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine/Dist RMN-GP/Donation Willy RonisWilly Ronis: Barge with children on the Seine river, Paris, 1959
While many images—such as the famous Nu Provençal or that of his son Vincent flying a model airplane—convey a tender, romantic spirit, others, born of his engagement with leftist politics, are much starker, with strong chiaroscuro. (Tragically, Vincent would later die in a hang-gliding accident, a sport that Ronis also practiced well into his eighties.) In the spirit of his May 1936 beginnings, when one million people demonstrated to support the Popular Front government, Ronis regularly covered demonstrations and strikes, conflicts at the Citroën and Renault car factories, the harsh worlds of the miners in Saint-Étienne in the north of France, and of the textile industry in Alsace-Lorraine. He also traveled to the Mediterranean, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, England, the United States, Réunion Island, and even to Moscow, Prague, and East Germany during the cold war, doing personal work and commercial assignments, often for Vogue.
Even in the mid-1930s when working on assignment, Willy Ronis always requested that his photographs not be cropped and his captions not be changed—not the common practice for photographers at the time—which caused numerous professional conflicts, notably with New York magazine, which published his portrait of a trade unionist with a sarcastic caption. Though hurt by such callousness, he continued to accept magazine assignments and publicity work, but he chose his clients carefully.
Music was Willy Ronis’s first love; and although, because of his father’s illness and his family responsibilities, he could not become a composer, music can still be felt in his work, a subtle force within his beautifully composed images, lending harmony, poise, and rhythm to the most seemingly banal subjects. In July 1947, at Chez Max an outdoor ball, a bal-musette, in Joinville, near the Marne river, Ronis saw a young man dance and whirl with two girls, their skirts outstretched like butterfly wings. Ronis gestured to him to come closer for a better angle. When the music stopped, the youngster limped away: he had a clubfoot. But in Ronis’s photograph, his natural grace, caught in the instant, endures.
This is the twelfth in a series of essays about the 2018 World Cup guest-edited by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.
It will escape hardly a single fan of Les Bleus that July 12, 2018, will mark the twentieth anniversary of France’s 3-0 triumph over Brazil to win the World Cup at home at the Stade de France outside Paris, after which a million revelers—black, blanc, beur (black, white, Arab) alike, as the story goes—stormed the Champs-Élysées, commencing Bastille Day celebrations a couple of days early and heralding, in the eyes of the hopeful, a new multicultural dawn for the Fifth Republic. Even those who were not yet born then—a group that includes Kylian Mbappé, perhaps the most electrifying player on the current France team, who was born later that year in the Parisian suburb of Bondy—will find it hard not to think about that 1998 victory. There are vivid narrative links between that iteration of Les Bleus and this year’s squad in Russia.
In 1998, a cadre of young stars like Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet, and Zinedine Zidane (who, despite his signature bald patch, was still only twenty-six) emerged at the World Cup. These new talents, with their family roots in France’s erstwhile colonies in the Africa and the Caribbean, rose at the expense of some older luminaries—Eric Cantona and David Ginola—who were not selected for the team by its manager, Aimé Jacquet. Today, Mbappé, Ousmane Dembélé, and Nabil Fekir are on the threshold of starring for France—if their current manager, Didier Deschamps, captain of the 1998 squad, will let them—while France’s talismanic veteran striker, Karim Benzema, sits at home. (Benzema, a son of Algerian immigrants who, as one of Europe’s leading strikers, has won four Champions League titles in five years with his club side, Real Madrid, fell out with Deschamps, whom Benzema accused of having “bowed to the pressure from a racist part of France” after an unsavory affair involving his alleged involvement in the blackmailing of a teammate.)
It is Cantona, in particular, whom I think of when I look at the current France team. That is not simply because he has been outspoken about Benzema’s absence, but also because my connection to France, Frenchness, and indeed to soccer was forged mainly through admiring Cantona from afar. For admirers of France who were not born there—my last name comes from my father, who was born in the Dominican Republic—the soccer team has proved a way to ponder a nation to which we have tenuous ties. (I once fielded a phone call from a Parisian gentleman, also a L’Official, who was conducting ancestry research and had traced the name’s possible origins to Brittany, but that’s as far as my actual ties to Gaul go.)
The spark that lit whatever latent Francophilia was dwelling within me was the sight of Cantona, playing for Manchester United against Sunderland in 1996, beating three players and then chipping over goalkeeper Lionel Pérez from the edge of the penalty box. It wasn’t so much the goal, impudent and spectacular by itself, but rather the celebration that was breathtaking: rooted to the spot from which he had deftly struck the ball, Cantona—with his collar, as ever, upturned—watched his shot nestle in the top left corner of the goal; then slowly, triumphantly, he turned 360 degrees as if to bask fully in the home crowd’s adulation at his assured magnificence. In that moment, I became a Cantona fan before I was a fan of any team or nation.
Ever since, I have been mad for the swaggering Frenchness of popped collars, for defiant Thierry Henry knee slides, for Zinedine Zidane’s ecstatic touchline sprints brandishing his kit as he might a banner. I wasn’t the only member of my generation for whom all of this suggested modes of being and of belonging, exemplified by brown and black bodies, that suggested at least the fantasy, if not always the reality, of an evolving notion of what Frenchness could be. In 1998, I watched live as France defeated Brazil, but my fondness for that team—difficult, at first, since it did not have Cantona in its ranks—was more accurately the product of countless repeated viewings of my college roommate’s ’98 World Cup highlights VHS cassette. Before the Internet made it possible to watch every game, everywhere, American soccer fans subsisted on highlight tapes like these, or weekend league wrap-up shows on seemingly fly-by-night networks that hawked the “foreignness” of sports such as rugby and Australian rules football.
I feel a related, curious sense of proximity with the current French team. Les Bleus, as has been their custom, do not lack for individual flair; there’s a reason that clichéd term “mercurial” seems almost to have been invented to be a modifier for the noun “Frenchman.” (This designation, it should be said, is often used by British commentators, who have their own set of national stereotypes and schemas at the ready.) Our top attacker Antoine Griezmann is a matinée-ready, Beckham-worshipping idol, a Masculin Féminin-era Jean-Pierre Léaud. Our leading midfielder, Paul Pogba (another son of the immigrant-rich Parisian banlieues; his parents are from Guinea), stands at the center of what he would almost surely deem the known “Pog-verse,” given his penchant for branding, but also for the way that, when on form, he really does seem to be a man apart, the star around which others revolve.
Pogba is, depending on exchange rates, either the fourth or fifth most expensive player, measured by transfer fees, in the history of soccer. Manchester United paid $116.4 million for his services—and on his day, he can make even that number seem a bargain. That he is black, Muslim, indeed mercurial, and, yes, a Frenchman again complicates what Frenchness is. Players like Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, and Mbappé (born to a Cameroonian father and an Algerian mother) display exactly the kind of audacious elegance of play that first seduced me while watching Cantona. Their very presence in the team suggests almost limitless possibility, not simply in terms of skill but also, with apologies to Jean-Paul Sartre, of being.
Thus far though at this World Cup, that style has been little in evidence. In France’s first match, against Australia, Les Bleus were rather pedestrian. The sole moment of brilliance came in a series of one-touch passes that sent Pogba into the penalty area—and that ended, crucially, with the ball in the Aussies’ net, but only after it had been deflected there off one of their defenders. Against an inspiring Peru, France was lucky to win through an Mbappé goal, assisted by Pogba. Earlier this week, they played out the tournament’s first 0-0 draw with Denmark. It was a game that could have been an interesting encounter, but both teams spoiled it with lackluster, risk-averse play that showedwere content to advance to the quarterfinal round as other results went their way.
The distance I feel now from this team is one born of the disjuncture between what this side should be—adventurous, exciting, attacking—and what, to date, it has been: ponderous and predictable, preferring to knock long balls up the field toward the adept forward Olivier Giroud, or to hit speculative crosses into the penalty box to no one in particular. Pogba, Mbappé, Griezmann, and Fekir have all provided moments of penetrating thought and action, but these moments have been too few to give this French side a characteristic style. These Bleus seem to be decidedly not themselves. This crisis of identity seems imposed, rather than produced by any lack of creativity. The manager Deschamps has taken the brunt of the criticism for France’s play so far.
His own profile as a player was that of a hard-working, defensive midfielder more responsible for spoiling the opposition’s play than aiding his own side’s—his own teammate Cantona once described him dismissively as a “water-carrier.” Having apparently stamped his own dour image as a player upon this team, Deschamps seems unmoved by that criticism, unless he is simply at a loss for what else to do. His formerly blond hair turned silver, Deschamps now looks like a squat, Gallic version of the Roger Sterling character in Mad Men as he stalks the touchline.
I doubt that Cantona would describe the 2018 French team as a bunch of water-carriers, but given his penchant for caustic remarks, I can imagine his noting that their boss still is one. If Les Bleus are to mark the twentieth anniversary of their 1998 victory with a party next month, they will have to find some way to express the most expansive, spontaneous, and progressive notions of Frenchness that we know they can achieve on the pitch.
And they cannot delay: next up as their opponent in the first knockout stage is Lionel Messi’s Argentina. Allez les Bleus!
It could be argued that the women of Mycenae would have fared better if the gods had just kept busy inventing themselves and begetting their way out of Chaos. Better, at least, than those women fared when the bored denizens of Mount Olympus flung themselves into a bloody earthly drama starring the family known to its chroniclers as the House of Atreus.
The story of Atreus is a dynastic myth, as true to the deep history of Bronze Age Greece as, say, Cúchulainn’s exploits are to the history of ancient Ireland. Of course, there are myths and myths. The story of Gaia birthing Uranus (a virgin birth) and then bedding him to spawn the Titans is an origin myth, on the order of the Honey Ant Dreaming of the Aborigines or, for that matter, Yahweh’s six-day marathon called Creation. But when you begin to parse the myths that dispense and apportion power among the mortals of Mycenae and Sparta at the time of the Trojan War, you discover something more familiar—a sacralization of the male domain, a precursor to the apostolic succession or the divine right of kings, which runs from Zeus, juggling thunderbolts in his palatial aerie, down to Agamemnon, the Mycenaean king, and the stone block in Aulis on which he sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia in order to speed his fleet to Troy and recover his brother’s beautiful stolen wife.
Aeschylus is said to have described his trilogy on the Atreus clan as “morsels from the feast of Homer.” It was a feast that outlasted the great blind bard of the Trojan War and its aftermath through five or six centuries of arguably embroidered recapitulation to give us the dazzling years of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—and, one has to assume, of innumerable dark-horse candidates waiting in the wings of the Theater of Dionysus, dreaming of the tripod cauldron that went to the winner of Athens’s annual tragedy competition.
Since then, the rich Homeric legacy of Troy and its aftermath has posed a challenge that few writers could imagine addressing with anything close to Athenian success, perhaps because by the time the younger Seneca produced his Roman revenge drama Agamemnon, the last important Atreus tragedy of the classical world, a new foundational drama called Christianity had intervened. The Christian drama had this in common with the Atrean myth: it came with its own sacrificial centerpiece, and it invoked the image of a grieving mother whose suffering was both exalted and ignored in the interests of patriarchal power. Given that the first disciples of this new faith were also emboldened by their roots in those old but reliable Hebraic theological inventions, monotheism and miracles, Zeus never stood a chance.
Colm Tóibín’s reinvention of the Atreus story, House of Names, slipped quietly into print last year. The response was cautious (call it insecure) but deferential. Nothing in Tóibín’s previous work seems to have prepared his readers for the shock of such a bold and evocative tampering with some of Western literature’s most canonic texts or for the twilight of the gods with which his story ends, signaled by the first cries of a young woman in the throes of childbirth, and with those cries the strange but indisputably Christian suggestion of reconciliation and salvation. Believe it but don’t count on it, he seems to be saying. Resolution belongs to fiction; it keeps us faithful.
Tóibín has written that, being somewhat at loose ends after finishing his novel Nora Webster—set, like much of his fiction, in Enniscorthy, the Wexford village where he grew up and from which he quickly fled—he was advised by a friend to consider the story of Clytemnestra for his next book. He was taken with her. (He had never taken to Electra. Who does?) But it was the few fleeting images of the child Orestes, in Euripides’s Iphigenia at Aulis, a play he had never read, that captured his imagination and ultimately shaped his novel. He was drawn especially to the mystery of Orestes, who, in his earlier readings, had served the Greeks and their dramatists more as a kind of mortal deus ex machina, dropped into the plays to move the action and its resolution forward, than as a character with a rich story of his own or even much capacity for self-reflection. And in the end, Tóibín decided to reimagine Orestes.
Three irreconcilable stories wind through House of Names. Two of them are monologues, and they belong to the women of the family: to Clytemnestra’s ghost and to the living Electra—mother and daughter trapped in inescapable repetitions of hope and hatred, powerless to move through narratives of their own shaping.
The third story belongs to Orestes. It is a coming-of-age story, an imagined Bildungsroman (a form traditionally reserved for boys), told not by the subject but by the author, which is to say, with all the command and the deceptive authenticity of witness. It recounts the adventures of a small boy spirited out of Aulis just as the Greek fleet sails and marched by guards through hinterlands to what we might now call a “tender age” internment camp, from which he eventually escapes in the company of a grievously ill younger boy called Mitros and an older boy, Leander—the adolescent survivor of a family of Agamemnon loyalists. Leander is based, in part, on Orestes’s friend Pylades, as he is known in the various Atreus plays. He is a boy of enviable competence and resolve, a natural leader undeterred by either doubt or mercy—in other words, a man in the making. He teaches Orestes how to survive and, when necessary, to kill in a wilderness full of predators and assassins.
In time (and perhaps because of Orestes’s reluctant plunge into the rituals of Attic warrior manhood), the three boys arrive at the edge of an unknown sea, where they take shelter in the farmhouse of an old and ailing woman who has long since lost her own sons to marauding soldiers. Years pass. Orestes and Leander work the woman’s sorry fields, herd her remaining animals, and find a measure of comfort and relief, if not passion, in each other’s arms at night. When Mitros and the woman die, along with the dog they had counted on to warn them of approaching danger, the two set out to retrace their steps toward Mycenae.
En route, they discover the burned-out villages and hacked bodies left by Clytemnestra’s lover, Aegisthus, and his soldiers as they emptied the kingdom of Agamemnon’s old followers and friends. Near Mycenae, they come upon the village of Leander’s slaughtered clan and its lone survivor, his younger sister Ianthe, raped by five of Aegisthus’s men and left to die under a pile of corpses—so that no one and at the same time all of Greece could be considered father to the baby she will soon bear. Witnesses to a broken state and a broken family, they return with Ianthe to the palace, where a maddened Electra demands that Orestes prove himself and avenge their father by killing Clytemnestra.
In retrospect, it isn’t surprising that Tóibín, a child of midcentury Ireland, freed by literature, wanderlust, and more than a touch of genius from the homophobic confines of a small-town Catholic life, would eventually, if unexpectedly, end up in Mycenae with Orestes. Five years earlier, he had given voice to Christianity’s most emblematic grieving woman with The Testament of Mary, a mother’s cri de rage against the pack of God-besotted acolytes cheering her son through Calvary to the Cross and then, as self-appointed impresarios of the new faith, claiming title to the message and meaning of his death. It is worth noting that House of Names opens with the roaming ghost of a raging, grieving Clytemnestra, her voice echoing down the dark stone corridors of the palace of Mycenae, and the words “I have been acquainted with the smell of death.”
The Testament of Mary was a stunning rebuke to every official representation of a gentle Madonna—the Mary of Christian art and worship—suffering but accepting the inevitability of her own loss and of her son’s horrific death. Tóibín’s Mary is a proto-feminist mother, shrieking No! into the sealed room of apostolic indoctrination. It is easy to spot her lurking in the eponymous protagonist of Nora Webster, the Enniscorthy novel that appeared between Mary and House of Names. Nora is the widow of Enniscorthy’s favorite schoolmaster, a kindly, connubial small-town personage who grew to hagiographic stature on his death, leaving Nora ripe for comeuppance and at war with the town’s assumption that she will fade, quickly and discreetly, behind a proper widow’s lace curtains, suffer the incursions and desertions of her grown children, step out mainly to tend the flowers at her husband’s grave, and endure the smug condescension of the wives of lesser but living men.
Tóibín’s women cross centuries in their familiarity. There is something of Nora in his Clytemnestra, too; you see it in the steel with which both women rail against dismissal. The women of Mycenae were expected to please, procreate, accommodate, plot, and rage in private, and in the end lament—to rue the passing of an ancient (and almost certainly apocryphal) matriarchy, to grieve for their dead children, and to endure the violent prerogatives of their men, though never to be forgiven themselves should they, like Clytemnestra, take up a knife to avenge a daughter’s death. The popular understanding of a murderously vengeful woman was not only gender-specific but what you would have to call site-specific—hysterika, for uterus, being the Greek word—and it didn’t matter if that madness was born of a roiling maternal grief like Clytemnestra’s or, like Electra’s, was the fury of a jealous and unlovely daughter.
Grief has been a plainsong thrumming through much of Tóibín’s fiction, with its stories of loss, of loneliness and exclusion, of secret longings and closeted consummations—and, more to the point, of the wages of grief on people with neither the means nor the audacity to choose their own stories. He has been a constant, clear-eyed, and almost mercilessly compassionate chronicler of those wages, of their toll on the spirit. Today, nine novels and countless stories into an enviable literary life, he continues to explore the illimitable ways in which powerlessness can freeze a heart and at the same time fuel resolve with the hot energy of regret. In the process, he has honed a prose of such taut beauty that it can sweep you into eddies of distress—make you an interloper in the painfully constructed secrets of his angry, suffering women and anxious, closeted young men as they inch through life, like Sisyphus in death, under the burden of their isolation.
Tóibín’s recasting of Clytemnestra as a haunted ghost (in her case, an accurate oxymoron) and Mary as a hounded and crazed Madonna turns out to be less exotic, or revisionist, or even puzzling than it might originally have seemed. (“Hounded,” “crazed,” and “haunted” are feelings that most women, at one time or another, can attach to.) Tóibín’s distant mothers, in their lingering grief, are as open to interpretation as any literary tropes, whatever the turf certainties and raised eyebrows of experts with a mind to question his right to reinvention. The Greeks themselves told wildly varying versions of the Atreus story, and the Apostles, relative newcomers to recorded history, were pleasantly idiosyncratic when it came to patching together the words of Christ.
No one, of course, can know how Clytemnestra “felt” about Iphigenia’s murder or even if she was a Homeric composite or worse, perhaps, a plot device to guarantee that Orestes, the man of the story, gets his moment with the gods—just as no one can say for sure that Mary grasped, let alone accepted, the torment her son endured. In this sense, Tóibín’s Attic and Hebrew mothers—dusted off, recast, and waiting to be resettled into “history”—can confidently be put to work providing us with what we expect from literature: a salutary initiation into empathy and understanding. And as Coleridge (with a little help from his opium pipe) called it, a “suspension of disbelief.”
By now Tóibín’s characters have become our literary familiars, whether their odysseys begin in a homey Enniscorthy kitchen or in a bourgeois Buenos Aires sitting room (where we first encounter the closeted young hero of The Story of the Night) or in the haunted stone corridors of an Attic palace. Tóibín’s subject is the door: how to open it, where to go once you have, and whether the hope of a bright new life will ease your passage somewhere along the way.
It’s useful to remember that Tóibín began his working life as a reporter, feeding what we now know to be a serious travel habit. He was fresh from University College Dublin when he left Ireland for the first time, arriving in Barcelona just as the Generalissimo was dying and staying for three years of liberation—the country’s and his own. Catalonia has become a second home. He shares a village house in the Catalan Pyrenees (the source and setting of his incomparable novella A Long Winter) and a flat in Barcelona, as well as owning what he calls a modest house in Dublin and a cottage near Enniscorthy, on the Wexford coast. These places will be deeply familiar to readers of his novels. They are his touchstones. He is said to stop at them nearly every year (on breaks from Columbia, where he now teaches), to see friends, sniff the air for inspiration, and, sometimes, settle in and write, but always following a kind of pilgrimage route to the sources of his fictional world.
Few people visiting the ruins of the ancient stone beehive said to be either Agamemnon’s tomb or the Atrean treasury are likely to emerge without a sense of “So this is where it happened,” and even of “This is what happened,” and, eventually, “This is who was there.” By the end of House of Names, the “who” of the House of Atreus has become as crowded and painfully expectant as the third act of Parsifal. But unlike Wagner’s mythic innocent, whom Tóibín’s Orestes clearly (and perhaps intentionally) resembles, our hero serves his purpose—sparing Electra the curse of matricide by committing it himself—and is afterward scorned and ignored. Electra and Leander take control of the kingdom, make their peace with Sparta, and, having broken the legs of Aegisthus so he can’t escape, use him and his loyal guards to keep the farmers and soldiers of Mycenae in line and the treasury replenished.
Orestes is banned by the elders from this dystopian family council and is instead drawn into the world of women. His mother’s ghost calls to him at night, when the guards are sleeping, and he follows her soft, echoing voice down through the palace’s stone corridors until it fades into the darkness and disappears. Otherwise, he spends his days and nights with the gentle, diffident Ianthe, his designated bride. For a time, he believes that the child, soon to be born, is his, until she tells him that the things the two of them “do in the dark” will not, as far as she understands it, make babies.
The book ends with Orestes and Leander standing together outside Ianthe’s room, listening for the newborn’s cry that will end her labor, and Electra inside, with the midwife, perhaps confabulating the next chapter of that distant drama. “It is all thanks to you,” the chorus says of Helen, as the Greek fleet waits for wind, at Aulis, in the Euripides play that inspired Tóibín. “It is still you, even if that is no more than a story/out of the books of the Muses,/with no meaning.” We will never know what happened, only that in time the story of Atreus will change, and possibly even be forgotten, and that salvation is perhaps the greatest fiction of them all.
Once shunned by travelers because of a war that left over 250,000 dead and displaced millions, Colombia is now a popular destination. For decades the US State Department advised caution in visiting, but now JetBlue has flights to three Colombian cities. The country’s jungles, red deserts, snow-capped mountains, and rivers are a must-see for ecotourists. The Audubon Society recently described Colombia as the best place in the world for bird-watching. While the world crumbles—Europe is “on the ropes,” Africa is “mired in poverty,” the Middle East “ablaze”—writes Santiago Gamboa in his recent satirical novel Return to the Dark Valley, “Colombia is on the crest of a wave.”
The country’s era of peace and prosperity—“the light at the end of the tunnel”—began in earnest after the Marxist guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) agreed to demobilize. In September 2016, after almost six decades of fighting and almost six years of painstaking negotiations, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC leader Timochenko signed a peace treaty in front of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and other dignitaries, including US Secretary of State John Kerry and Spanish King Juan Carlos.
The treaty won Santos the Nobel Peace Prize but it remains controversial in Colombia, where many reject it and believe that Santos’s government handed the country over to Communist narco-terrorists. They are convinced that Colombia could soon become another Venezuela. This is one of the main reasons that Colombians voted for Iván Duque as the successor to Santos on June 17. He was the candidate who most strongly opposed the negotiations. Humberto de la Calle, the candidate who ran on the platform of continuing the peace treaty—he was one of its main negotiators—was only able to capture 2.06 percent of the votes in the first round.
Even if unpopular, the peace treaty is a huge accomplishment. Today, for the first time since 1964, Colombia is not fighting a war. In an interview, Daniel Coronell, a leading columnist and investigative journalist, defended the treaty with fervor as “the most important political event since the declaration of independence” from Spain in 1810. Fourteen months after it was signed, El Tiempo, Colombia’s leading newspaper, published a study showing that conflict-related deaths had gone from three thousand in 2002 to zero. Young women are no longer being abducted, raped, and enslaved. FARC atrocities have ended.
Under the deal, the guerrillas gave up their guns and became a political party. Although they kept their acronym, it now stands for the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force of Colombia, and the rifle in their logo was turned into a red rose. Regardless of their efforts to change their image and attract voters, in their first parliamentary election in March 2018, the FARC received just 53,000 votes out of the 18 million cast, a mere 0.36 percent. Soon after, Timochenko pulled out of the presidential race. Forgiveness, which they have been asking for (as part of the treaty, FARC leaders are apologizing to the group’s victims), remains out of the question. Such atrocities as the Bojayá massacre in 2002, in which more than a hundred civilians were murdered in cold blood, have not been forgotten, especially by those who oppose reconciliation under the treaty’s terms. (Now, with Duque as president, their pardons are unclear. Most of his base opposes amnesty.)
Return to the Dark Valley turns upside down everything that Colombians have known. The country that suffered Latin America’s longest and bloodiest civil conflict is cast here as a Republic of Goodness, a peacenik paradise where people go around asking for forgiveness and hugging one another. The Hollywood actor Sean Penn bought a house in Cartagena, where Bono and Benicio del Toro go hang out. Oliver Stone “announced his intention” to make a film about the guerrillas, and the Nobel laureate Jean-Marie Le Clézio chose to buy his house on the Pacific Coast.
In this version of Colombia, “the new hero was the man who opened his arms and found someone to reconcile with. The ethic of forgiveness had replaced the old local Darwinism.” Priests “possessed by the spirit of reconciliation” give sermons preaching love via Skype. Curvy women and ultra-fit men walk around being “tremendously…tolerant.” A television game show called The Forgiveness Hour gets more viewers than soccer matches—a clever comparison, since the country sometimes shuts down during big games. (On election day, trending on social media were messages encouraging people to go out and cast their votes and not stay in watching the World Cup.) On the show, abusers are paired up with their victims. The winning team is the first in which the abused tells the abuser, “Yes, I forgive you.”
If all this sounds absurd, I witnessed something like it in Cartagena at the time of the peace treaty’s signing. At the open-air ceremony three thousand guests, including myself, wore white, while a choir of women who had lost relatives during the Bojayá massacre sang a song to the perpetrators. I saw children dance to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” and I admired the tiny gold peace-sign earrings worn by Senator Clara Rojas, who had been kidnapped by the FARC and survived six years in captivity. This is the real history that Gamboa is satirizing—a very Colombian expression of a universal theme: how difficult it is to move through forgiveness to peace.
Last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Although Gabriel García Márquez’s much-loved novel is not often associated with violence, its pages do describe Colombia at war. The main character, Colonel Aureliano Buendía, founder of the town of Macondo, was a war hero. He had fought thirty-two battles in the bloody conflict between Liberals and Conservatives known as the Thousand Days’ War, which ended in 1902.
García Márquez was writing the book in Mexico around the time that the FARC was formed. One Hundred Years of Solitude put Colombia on the map of world literature and made Gabo, as García Márquez is known, an overnight celebrity. Just two weeks after the book was published in Argentina, a reader pointed out the still-penniless author in the audience of the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. Everyone leapt to their feet to give him a standing ovation.
While the world applauded his work, Colombian writers suffered from his success. His literary fame cast “the shadow of a huge ceiba tree” over the country’s novelists, as one of his old drinking buddies from the coast once told me. Writers from the next generation were left with two options: ignore Gabo—which was almost impossible—or shamelessly copy him. As a result, the rest of Colombian fiction went largely unnoticed. To the world, there was only Gabo.
Until, that is, a rebel posse, including Gamboa, emerged at the turn of the century. Gabo’s greatest influence was stylistic, but writers who had grown up under the specter of extreme violence cast by the FARC, their paramilitary counterparts, and drug traffickers such as Pablo Escobar had very little interest in magical realism. You will never find a virginal beauty ascending into heaven in their novels.
You will find a murdering teenage girl, however. Jorge Franco’s Rosario Tijeras (1999) is about a beautiful and haunting love triangle involving Rosario, a girl from the barrio who kills for Escobar, and two upper-class kids in Medellín. Mario Mendoza’s Satanás (2002), based on real events, depicts a mass shooter, a Vietnam vet who snaps and goes on a shooting spree in a pizzeria. Gamboa published his first book in 1995: Páginas de vuelta, the coming-of-age story of three alienated city kids, which was noticed mostly because of its urban, angsty style. All three books became best sellers, and the authors became instant celebrities.
Gamboa likes to recall a reading Mendoza gave in Bogotá when Satanás was just a work in progress. The auditorium was packed with thousands of young readers, he told me in 2003. After the presentation, “they came up to Mario for an autograph but also to me and to Franco, who was in the front row. A reader of mine was also a reader of Franco and a reader of Franco was a reader of Mendoza.” Colombia was again reading—and reading its own. These novelists also received international acclaim. When Gamboa published The Impostors, his first thriller, in 2001, it was translated into eleven languages.
Gamboa, now fifty-three, is the son of intellectuals, and he has said that his urbane and polished Bogotá upbringing had nothing in common with García Márquez’s Colombia. But like the Nobel laureate he began his literary career abroad, moving to Europe in his early twenties and studying philology in Spain and Cuban literature in Paris. He later served as a cultural consul in New Delhi, sent war dispatches from Bosnia, and wrote a column for Colombian newspapers and magazines from wherever he happened to be.
His novels, mostly thrillers, are set in far-flung locales—Bangkok, Beijing, Tokyo—but the main characters are usually Colombians, often caught in global webs of organized crime. In The Impostors, an ambitious Colombian pretends to be a journalist as he searches for an ancient manuscript in China. Night Prayers is about a beautiful young woman from Bogotá named Juana who is offered a job abroad only to find herself enslaved by yakuza sex-traffickers.
Return to the Dark Valley combines many aspects of Gamboa’s previous work: violence, displacement, erudite reflections on the state of the world and the human condition, and depictions of Colombians living abroad. Unlike his other novels, though, this one is about what happens when the rejected homeland becomes attractive, when the yellow brick road leads back to where you started. It is about going home, which might reflect Gamboa’s own recent decision to live in Colombia after three decades roaming the world.
“Thanks to the peace,” he writes, “the country had stopped being what it had been for half a century: an execution yard…the most beautiful and flower-bedecked mass grave in Latin America.” But Gamboa also shows why Colombia “still doesn’t smell of roses,” and he gives the reader a visceral account of the violence that turned a beautiful land into such a hellish landscape. Colombia is gorgeous, explains Father Ferdinand, a right-wing priest with ties to paramilitary fighters:
Do you believe that the Lord created those beautiful mountains, those skies, those tropical plants, and those birds with their colored plumage, that He made the hummingbirds and the butterflies, the seas and the snow-capped peaks, the rivers and the trees, only to hand it all over to the Communists and let them turn it into a sewer, a brothel, a discotheque for dopeheads and faggots? No, my friend.
Anything that might save the country from turning Red is allowed. “And that’s what I did. To fight for God and to save this country from the Communists.”
Return to the Dark Valley is also layered with disquisitions on everything from Rimbaud’s life to negritude poetry, Nietzsche, and the minds of jihadists. Joseph Beuys and Joseph Conrad have cameos. This can be impressive, even exhilarating, but also exasperating and excessive. As Gamboa explained in an interview he gave to Dwyer Murphy, crime editor at the website Electric Literature:
I suppose in our times the novel has gained sufficient freedom to cross genre borders and break with all models, which is also the way the contemporary novel is adapting to a fragmentary and chaotic reality. That’s the kind of book I like to read: a book that can contain, for example, essay, biographical chronicle, mystery novel and romance novel in the same pages.
Return to the Dark Valley begins in Europe, which is no longer the golden continent where so many Colombians emigrated, like the characters in the novel, but rather a grimy and infested passageway for “plague ships” arriving from Syria and North Africa. In Madrid, three Colombians are plotting their return. The central narrator, a consul and cosmopolitan flaneur, resembles his creator. Sitting around in Rome with nothing much to do, the consul decides to take a train to Madrid when he receives a text from Juana, the call girl from Night Prayers, who is now a mother and humanitarian aid worker. Manuela, a feisty and intelligent girl from the favela who is in Europe on a scholarship (to study philology, as Gamboa had), now wants to go back to Colombia to exact revenge on those who wronged her. She is the most decisive of the three and drives much of the novel.
Manuela had a brutal upbringing. Born in abject poverty in the countryside, she was raped at a very young age by her mother’s “foul-smelling” boyfriend, Freddy, and ended up in a Catholic orphanage. There is nothing out of the ordinary about this story of abuse; it is the story of millions of Colombian girls. What is new is the graphicness with which Gamboa describes what happens within the walls of the nunnery, where the girls and their guards stage raunchy sex and drug parties. This is also where things start to go right for Manuela. She begins to read, her only form of solace. One night, when a rich girl—elite Colombians use orphanages as rehab clinics for their troubled children—is caught with drugs, Manuela takes the blame. The girl’s grateful mother then becomes Manuela’s benefactor, paying for her education, taking her along on family vacations during which Manuela basks in their sumptuous lifestyle, and eventually sending her to a private university in Bogotá.
Manuela’s street-honed wits make her popular among her richer, more sophisticated schoolmates. When they hear her poetry, she is allowed into their circle, but she discovers that they are a bunch of malicious snobs. Manuela is seduced by an upper-class poet, the wife of a professor at her university who then plagiarizes her work. (“I felt as if I’d been raped for the second time. Brutally raped.”) Literature—and leaving—become her salvation. She wins her scholarship to study in Spain and curses Colombia as she leaves: “Go to hell all of you…drug traffickers, rapists, murderers, thieves…. Stay here with your damned fake god, in your country of blood and shit.”
I have uttered a variation on these words myself. Although my childhood was the opposite of Manuela’s, I, too, made the conscious decision in my early twenties to leave Colombia. When the peace treaty was signed, I thought of returning, but this is still only a thought. Colombia with a demobilized FARC is a much more attractive country now, even though I share Manuela’s sentiments about the deeply ingrained violence, crime, intolerance, and corruption that persist. Gamboa’s novel, as its title—taken from William Blake—suggests, grimly shows the difficulties involved in amnesty and reconciliation. Despite the rhetoric of forgiveness that has gripped Gamboa’s Colombia, Manuela will go to any lengths to get her revenge on Freddy. It is the only thing that will set her free. She must return.
In Madrid, through a series of fortuitous coincidences, Manuela is finally able to make it happen. She meets the consul (whose name is never given) when he intervenes to defend her in a lover’s quarrel that sends him to the hospital. When she visits the hospital to thank him, they realize they are both from Colombia and become instant friends. The consul invites her to Juana’s house, where Manuela shows them the notebooks she keeps. Reading her story, the consul realizes that he has found Freddy, the same bloodthirsty character from Father Ferdinand’s stories that he’d heard while convalescing. Manuela convinces the consul and Juana to accompany her to Colombia. Through another chance encounter (the plot seems driven by coincidental meetings), Juana finds a hit man, a sinister Argentinian called Tertullian, who has developed a grotesque methodology of dismembering victims called “The Theory of Mutilated Bodies.” And so begins the grisly denouement. Gamboa switches registers from postmodernist pastiche to the now popular narco-literature.
Back in Bogotá, the consul finds out through journalistic contacts that Manuela’s target has risen from small-time rural thug to become the biggest drug kingpin in Colombia, working directly with Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel. The newest drug is a synthetic substance called pink cocaine, but he conducts his business just like the cartels of old—with escort girls. He throws lavish parties at which the prize for a dance competition could be a suitcase filled with as much as $25,000. Manuela and Juana, dressed appropriately, which is to say hardly at all, undergo a demeaning screening process and infiltrate one of his fiestas. Manuela is finally able to face her rapist—except now as a seductress. A fluttering of the eyes, a short conversation, a dance, and he is at her mercy. “Revenge is the great orgasm of hate,” she thinks to herself. “Freddy stole my childhood and…childhood is the only true country.”
Gamboa addresses in this meandering novel one of the most universal questions: What is home? As Juana tells the consul when they consider leaving Madrid for Bogotá with Manuela, “We have to go with her…. And return where? Where do we really return?” For the consul, with his Rimbaudian temperament, returns are only useful for gathering energy—“wind in his soles” needed in order to leave again.
The return to Colombia, “the dark valley,” also raises questions about memory, injustice, and trauma and how they relate not just to individuals, such as Manuela, but to an entire nation. Will the country be able to move on through amnesty and reconciliation, or only through revenge? Santos’s government hoped that reconciliation would have been the starting point. So do the countries and international organizations that have supported Colombia’s peace process. A demobilized FARC will finally allow the state to focus on developing the country. But Gamboa’s portrayal of Manuela suggests just how hard it can be to stop the cycle of violence.
Manuela says she “made an effort to forgive” Freddy when she faced him but “couldn’t,” so she gives Tertullian instructions to go ahead with his plan. Following his Theory of Mutilated Bodies, Tertullian concludes that just retribution for Manuela’s abuse will cost Freddy the removal of 30 percent of his body. Simple murder would not be enough. The genuine revenge is to keep him alive. “My dear Freddy,” says Tertullian as he takes him apart, “what you see around you is both a mausoleum and a delivery room.” Gamboa’s detailed descriptions of Tertullian’s work are as torturous to read.
Gamboa’s mixture of monologue, news analysis, rumination, world history, philology, philosophy, and tabloid scoop is, certainly, a new way of writing fiction about Colombia. Ricardo Silva Romero, a Colombian writer and columnist who belongs to Gamboa’s generation and supports the peace process, recently said, “For a country to achieve a collective sanity, it has to be capable of narrating what has happened to it.” Gamboa’s novel, in spite of its Tarantino-esque effects, is a step in that direction. It is also a fierce reminder of how complicated it can be to choose pardon before revenge and peace over war. As Silva Romero wrote in one of his weekly columns, Colombians have a right “to demand a less sordid country.”
If Donald Trump’s nominee to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced his retirement on June 27, is confirmed by the Senate, the Supreme Court will have a stable majority of conservative justices for the first time since before the New Deal. Kennedy’s successor will be Trump’s second Surpreme Court pick and may not be his last. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is eighty-five, clearly wishes to stay on the Court as long as Trump is president. So does Justice Stephen Breyer, who turns eighty later this year. But neither is immortal. Especially if Trump is reelected, he could potentially replace both of these justices with staunch young conservatives.
The current Court’s four consistent conservatives are all substantially younger than Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Breyer. The oldest, Clarence Thomas, is sixty-nine. Samuel Alito is sixty-eight, Chief Justice John Roberts is sixty-three, and Neil Gorsuch is just fifty. All are self-described constitutional originalists; all favor interpreting statutes based on text rather than their intention; and all have strongly pro-business judicial records. Should Trump appoint a fifth conservative—to say nothing of a sixth or seventh—the conservative majority could easily last a generation.
In light of this prospect, it is not too soon to start asking what a conservative Supreme Court would mean for the country. A conservative jurisprudence, aggressively applied, would reshape American law and politics. It would reinterpret fundamental issues of individual and privacy rights, health care, employment, national security, and the environment. These changes would in turn affect electoral politics. The range of conservative legislation that could survive judicial review would expand, while the range of progressive legislation that could do so would narrow.
In retrospect, it is remarkable that a strong conservative majority on the Court has not emerged before now. Since 1980, Republicans have held the presidency for twenty-two years and Democrats for sixteen. Ronald Reagan, who campaigned on the platform of choosing conservative judges, appointed three justices—Antonin Scalia, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Kennedy—and elevated William Rehnquist to the chief justiceship. That should have established conservative control. Yet O’Connor turned out to be a centrist, controlling the Court for a quarter-century by casting the decisive fifth vote in controversial cases. When she retired in 2006, Kennedy assumed her position as the swing justice and unexpectedly emerged as a liberal hero, voting, for example, to extend constitutional rights to detainees in Guantánamo Bay and marriage rights to same-sex couples.1
George H.W. Bush also had the chance to consolidate a conservative majority. He appointed Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall but also replaced William Brennan with David Souter, who underwent a subtle yet significant evolution from Burkean conservative to Burkean liberal. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama each got two justices confirmed, which maintained the Court’s balance. That conservative control has been so long in coming reflects either miscalculation by Reagan and George H.W. Bush or (more likely) something less than full-throated judicial conservatism on their part.
There is one glaring anomaly in the pattern of appointments. Obama should have been able to get Merrick Garland confirmed after Scalia died in February 2016—which would have provided some insulation against a conservative majority. The Senate’s decision to block the moderate Garland purely because Obama nominated him transformed both the composition of the Court and the norms of the confirmation process.
A Senate controlled by Democrats would probably refuse to confirm any Trump Supreme Court nominee, no matter how much time remains in his presidency. If justices can only be confirmed when the president and the Senate majority come from the same party, we will witness a shrinking Supreme Court forced to operate with eight, seven, or even six justices. In this scenario, a president whose party controls the Senate would have the chance to fill all those vacancies with justices who share his or her ideology. The Court’s politics would no longer drift gradually but veer suddenly to the left or the right.
One of the first things likely to happen if the Court’s majority turns conservative is that state legislatures in heavily Republican states will pass legislation restricting abortion rights. Already, Mississippi has passed a law barring abortions after fifteen weeks—long before viability. A federal court blocked the law, but its passage signals clearly that the Court will come under pressure to revisit Roe v. Wade.
In the past, Chief Justice Roberts has shown a decided preference for changing constitutional law indirectly. Rather than overturning landmark liberal precedents outright, he prefers to minimize their importance by narrowing them and limiting their holdings to factual situations that no longer exist. He would surely prefer that Roe suffer death by a thousand cuts rather than see the Court accused of overturning it in a stroke and casting the country back to the days of coat-hanger and back-alley abortions.
Yet the chief justice is only first among equals. The Court’s other conservatives have already shown a willingness not to follow his lead, as occurred in the Affordable Care Act case, NFIB v. Sebelius, when they left Roberts alone in upholding the ACA’s individual mandate. Given the assertive ideology, cohesive political views, and no-holds-barred style of many younger judicial conservatives, a conservative majority could be expected to reverse Roe as long as Roberts concurred in the decision, regardless of whether he joined the opinion.
For pro-choice advocates, the fall of Roe would be a disastrous defeat. Brown v. Board of Education was controversial when decided but gained wide acceptance over time. The Roe decision has never achieved a similar consensus. Many Court observers, including Ginsburg, have suggested that it generated lasting controversy because the Court decided it without first laying the foundation with prior incremental decisions. As a result, since 1973, pro-choice advocates have been fighting a rearguard action to defend the right to abortion. For Roe to be overturned would be the ultimate failure of nearly half a century of pro-choice strategy.
The aftermath of a decision striking down the right to abortion would be complicated. Democrats would have to convince majorities in each state to protect abortion. It could become impossible for women to obtain legal abortions in the numerous states that have tried to enact more restrictive abortion laws in recent decades (only to have them struck down by the courts). Abortions could be outlawed in much or all of the South, the Southwest, and the intermountain West. Those with means would still be able to travel to states that permitted them, but women too poor or young to travel would find it vastly harder to end unwanted pregnancies. Many people would probably react by taking to the streets, organizing, and voting against such restrictive laws and the politicians who put them in place. Abortion rights would immediately become a wedge issue for Democrats. Their goal would be to push women who might otherwise vote Republican into the Democratic column.
Once abortion rights were constitutionally recognized, liberal efforts in connection with them were, rationally enough, redirected to preserving the composition of the courts, rather than actively trying to convince those who rejected such rights to change their views. For as long as abortion has been legal, conservatives, for their part, have been able to count on the crucial votes of centrists who prefer conservative candidates but quietly want to preserve the option of abortion. With Roe overturned, Republicans might lose the 34 percent of their voters who believe that abortion should be legal in most or all cases.
Just as liberals would no longer be able to rely on the Supreme Court to strike down anti-abortion measures, they would have to concentrate on winning elections and lobbying members of Congress to secure other rights that they are currently seeking to win in court. At present, the fight for transgender rights is heavily aimed at convincing judges to extend existing antidiscrimination protections to transgender people. Because a conservative Supreme Court would not in the foreseeable future do so, progressives would have to lobby Congress and state legislatures for such protections.
Over time, the fight could well prove successful. As the example of gay marriage shows, changes in values can eventually take place and even come to be broad-based. Support for gay marriage has risen steadily for twenty years, from 27 percent nationally in 1996 to 64 percent in 2017. Remarkably, the shift can be discerned even among evangelicals born after 1964, 49 percent of whom now believe gay marriage should be legal, compared to just 35 percent of all evangelicals.
For this reason, gay marriage may be one significant progressive rights victory that could survive even a conservative majority on the Court. Emboldened conservative state legislators might try to pass new laws contravening the Obergefell precedent and restricting marriage to one man and one woman. Yet the political cost of such efforts would probably be extremely high, as not only liberals but also mainstream corporate interests would respond with state-level boycotts. Some conservative justices could potentially accept gay marriage as a fait accompli, given how quickly attitudes toward it are changing. A conservative Court would no doubt allow religious liberty exemptions for merchants who do not wish to serve gay couples.2 But if gay marriage remains the law of the land, such exemptions will come to be seen as compensatory concessions to the losing side in a culture war, rather than steps toward reversal of the right to marriage.
In addition to rolling back existing constitutional rights, a conservative Supreme Court could block progressive government programs. One example is affirmative action. Over decades, the Court has used the right to equal protection of the laws to whittle down affirmative action until its only important remaining application is in higher-education admissions. In 2016, to the surprise of many observers, Kennedy cast the deciding vote to preserve this practice—despite having dissented thirteen years earlier when O’Connor used her swing vote to reach the same result.3
A conservative majority unconcerned with diversity as a social good in itself would not find it difficult to bar affirmative action altogether on the principle that white or Asian applicants are treated unequally when race is a factor in admissions. Unlike in the case of abortion rights, there would be no way for states to get around a constitutional ban on affirmative action.
Two responses would probably follow such a decision. Progressive students would protest vociferously; and administrators who have come to believe in the value of diversity as a good in itself would seek new ways to create diverse student bodies without formally taking account of race. Economically based affirmative action could be combined with school-based admissions quotas (such as admitting the top few percent of students from some schools or regions) that are formally race-neutral but track racial demographics. Universities could also invest in college preparation for underprivileged middle and high school students and actively recruit strong minority students.
A conservative Court majority could conceivably seek to limit and even overturn other progressive legislation by restricting the legitimate scope of the states’ or Congress’s activities. In some respects, it might bring the Court closer to the libertarian, property-protecting constitutional interpretation of the early twentieth century. In the Lochner era, so-called after a 1905 decision blocking a New York State maximum-hours law for bakers, the Court struck down much progressive state legislation as violating the liberty of contract, a right it found in the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Then and now, libertarian judicial activism entails blocking legislation that is thought to interfere with the ability of supposedly free economic actors to make economic decisions and form contractual relationships as they choose.
Libertarian thinking is alive among the conservative justices. In 2010, for example, the law professor Randy Barnett argued that the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act was unconstitutional because it required people to do something they were not doing—buying insurance—rather than regulating something they were already doing. Nearly all legal scholars found Barnett’s libertarian distinction between action and inaction constitutionally meaningless. The conservative justices embraced it, however, holding the mandate unconstitutional as beyond the authority of Congress under the commerce clause; Roberts and the four liberals voted to sustain the mandate on the grounds that it was part of Congress’s taxing power.
But the conservative justices would be very unlikely to go back to Lochner explicitly. The repudiation of the liberty-of-contract jurisprudence that characterized the Lochner era is still an important part of constitutional orthodoxy. Antonin Scalia held up the Lochner decision as the very model of bad jurisprudence, and frequently accused liberals like Kennedy of inventing constitutional rights in the vein of Lochner. A conservative court would be likelier to practice a less radical version of judicial activism, one in which the justices opportunistically use existing doctrinal tools to undermine progressive legislation.
Roberts, for instance, invoked states’ rights to block the Medicaid expansion proposed in the ACA. He held that Congress’s threat to revoke states’ Medicaid funding unless they accepted expansion amounted to an unconstitutional form of coercion. Similarly, in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), Roberts struck down a substantial part of the Voting Rights Act by arguing that Congress had drawn on “forty-year-old facts” about racial discrimination in voting, rather than citing “current conditions,” to justify extending the law. As a result, states and municipalities with long histories of racial gerrymandering can now redistrict without first submitting their plan to the Department of Justice for pre-clearance, as the Voting Rights Act requires.
Faced with this sort of conservative judicial activism, liberals could find themselves thwarted in passing progressive social legislation. The hard case would arise if the legislation enjoyed substantial and durable national support and was nonetheless blocked by the Court. That is not what happened with the ACA; the law passed by a bare partisan majority, and the conservative justices merely helped undermine legislation that already stood on shaky political ground. It is what happened during the New Deal, when the justices’ resistance led Franklin Roosevelt to try to pack the Court. The Court folded, and Roosevelt prevailed. Today’s Court, however, enjoys more independence and public legitimacy than the Court that Roosevelt confronted did, and it is far from obvious that it would give in to Democratic pressure.
Matters of national security—especially those that concern presidential power—would pose a problem for a conservative Court. Conservatives are torn between two competing views: one that grants the president near-monarchic authority when it comes to national security, and another that allows the president to be constrained by Congress. To complicate matters further, they have tended to support presidential power when the president is a Republican, while sharply limiting it when the president is a Democrat.
This conflict was on view in Zivotofsky v. Kerry (2015), an important case about whether the president or Congress would have the final word about the passports of US citizens born in Jerusalem. Congress wanted passport bearers to be able to list their country of birth as Israel; the Obama administration wanted to maintain the status quo, in which the country of birth was given as “Jerusalem” to avoid taking a stand on the city’s status. Ultimately, the Court held that the president could ignore Congress’s command to allow Israel to be designated because his authority in foreign affairs includes the right to recognize foreign states.
Unsympathetic to the Obama administration’s assertion of executive power, Scalia dissented. He pointed out that under the established doctrinal framework, the president’s power is at “its lowest ebb” when Congress has directly spoken. Thomas, also unsympathetic to Obama, dissented separately. But he insisted that the extent of the president’s inherent powers, as the Constitution originally defined them, should be determined by looking at the royal prerogatives that the British king in principle possessed in the era of the founding.4
Outraged, Scalia accused Thomas of constructing “a presidency more reminiscent of George III than George Washington.” Their disagreement went back to 2004, when Scalia and Thomas split sharply over whether the Bush administration could detain an American citizen without trial on suspicion of affiliation with al-Qaeda. Scalia thought this violated the basic right to habeas corpus; Thomas believed it fell within the president’s national security power.
A conservative post-Scalia Supreme Court would probably rule quite differently on presidential power and national security based on who the president was. It would be likely to defer to a conservative president, deploying Thomas’s theory of the strong executive. That is essentially what happened in Trump v. Hawaii, the travel ban case, in which the conservative majority relied on what it called “core” executive power as an excuse to avoid the anti-Muslim bias that actually motivated the ban. If a liberal president tried to deploy unilateral executive power, however, the Court’s conservatives might well fall back on the Scalia line of skepticism, insisting that Congress’s competing powers are necessary to constrain the president. A Democratic president might then end up blocked by a conservative Court unless the Democrats controlled Congress. If Congress and the president agreed, even a conservative Court could be expected to defer to them on matters of national security. Conservatives might in fact be more deferential under these conditions than a liberal Court would be to a Republican president and Republican-controlled Congress, because they have at hand the Thomas argument for radical deference to the executive, which no liberal justice endorses. Such deference seems especially likely to occur if Trump has appointed the justices who control the outcome.
Environmental regulation is the final area in which an activist conservative Court could have a substantial effect. The source of the Court’s power here lies in the relationship between environmental legislation and regulation. In general, Congress has chosen to deal with the environment by passing very general laws and delegating the authority to implement them to regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency.
An activist conservative Court could make life difficult for a Democratic EPA by blocking regulation directly, declaring it “arbitrary and capricious” under the Administrative Procedure Act. The courts are only supposed to use this tool to block actions that are genuinely irrational or that exceed the agency’s legal authority; but the Court could deploy it much more aggressively than has been done in the past.
In practice, environmentalists could try to get around such a judicial barrier by lobbying Congress to pass laws directing that a specific regulation be adopted, rather than delegating so much authority to the EPA. If public opinion were strongly enough in favor of increased environmental protection, a Democratic Congress and president could probably get some regulation adopted despite judicial resistance.
A conservative Court could also impede environmental reform by second-guessing agencies’ interpretations of federal law. According to what is known as the “Chevron doctrine,” when federal law is ambiguous, the Court will defer to an agency’s interpretation of the law provided it is reasonable. This doctrine is intended to give substantial power to agencies, binding the hands of judges who might otherwise disagree with the agencies’ policies.
Today Chevron is under attack, most prominently from Gorsuch, who has written disparagingly of the idea that courts would have anything less than full control over the meaning of federal statutes. This is bad news for environmental regulation—and that is almost certainly part of the point. A Court that does not defer to an agency’s interpretation of federal law can substitute its own policy judgment for that of the agency. If that agency is the EPA, and its judgment is being used to expand environmental protection, then a conservative Court that overturned Chevron or weakened its rule of deference would stand ready to reverse the agency’s course.
The only solution for environmentalists would be to pass new laws that would expressly enact regulation, rather than delegating regulatory authority to the agencies. That would be hard to do, especially given the established norm that agencies rather than Congress do most environmental regulating. But if a conservative Court systematically uses statutory interpretation to block environmental regulation, that division of labor may have to change. Instead of making arguments to the EPA or other agencies, environmentalists would have to direct their efforts more directly toward Congress itself.
A durable conservative majority on the Supreme Court could, then, impose substantial changes in American rights and law, especially in areas where liberals have in recent decades relied on courts and administrative agencies rather than Congress or state legislatures to implement progressive policies. Those who oppose such changes should begin considering the appropriate political responses, such as choosing which issues should be targeted for grassroots organizing and lobbying state legislatures and Congress. Ultimately, Democrats cannot rely on judges for social progress. A functioning liberal democracy requires a liberal populace that is prepared to vote for the policies it wants.
Kennedy had shown flashes of moderation before. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), he coauthored an opinion that declined to overrule Roe v. Wade and thus preserved women’s right to choose even as it replaced Roe’s trimester framework with a new test of whether the state had imposed an “undue burden” on the right. And in Romer v. Evans (1996), Kennedy helped establish a jurisprudential basis for gay rights by striking down a Colorado constitutional amendment that barred antidiscrimination laws protecting homosexuals. ↩
See David Cole, “This Takes the Cake” in this issue. ↩
Fisher v. University ofTexas (2016); Gratz v. Bollinger (2003). ↩
In fact, by the late Georgian period, the king was by constitutional custom unable to exercise many aspects of royal prerogative that textbooks still ascribe to him. See Eric Nelson, The Royalist Revolution (Harvard University Press, 2016). But Thomas seems blissfully uninterested in this complex historical reality. ↩
Álvaro Enrigue states that the New Laws of 1542 gave colonial Mexico’s “indigenous subjects rights identical to those of Spaniards” [“The Curse of Cortés,” NYR, May 24]. This was far from the case. Various forms of forced labor continued to be inflicted upon the indigenous (encomienda, repartimiento). A special tax, known as tribute, was levied only on Indians. There was a wide variety of other restrictions placed on the indigenous, including being prohibited from riding horses, becoming priests, entering the university, wearing European-style clothing, residing in certain urban areas, and being forcibly settled in compact hamlets (congregation).
A historian may have the responsibility to uncover facts that remain obscure and, in doing so, to correct even the memories of those who have witnessed or participated in the events in question. What he does not have the right to do is, even through mere implication, to use his questioning to impute guilt to any individual without positive evidence to support the charge. Nor is it justified to use the subject’s unwillingness to discuss such matters to imply guilt.
Jonas Mekas, whose accomplishments as a poet, writer, and filmmaker as well as a founder of the magazine Film Culture and Anthology Film Archives Michael Casper sets out at the beginning of his article “I Was There” [NYR, June 7], is evidently an unreliable narrator of the events he lived through during World War II. Casper points out that Mekas has spoken of the German occupation of Lithuania as having begun in 1942, when in fact it happened the previous year. It’s strange that Mekas would so misremember an event that had such consequences for himself and his country, but what ulterior motive can be attributed to a misstatement that anyone can correct through a simple Google search? Casper seems sure that Mekas has something to hide.
I should say a word here about my own parti pris. I write, first of all, as someone lucky enough as a teenager to have latched onto the Village Voice when Mekas was still writing there, and to have had my eyes opened to the potential of cinema before I’d even seen the films he was writing about. Later I got to know a small portion of Mekas’s voluminous work in film and video; and, after I was told, on a visit to Vilnius in 2007, that in Lithuania Mekas was best known as a poet rather than a filmmaker, I sought out his translated poetry. Later I met him on a couple of occasions, and—without getting to know him well—found him to be the gentle and generous soul I imagined from his writing and filmmaking. I’ve contributed a brief essay on one of his early poems to a forthcoming Festschrift.
Those of us who admire Mekas’s films, writings, and personal kindness can hardly object to Casper’s effort to reread his early writings in the context in which they were first published—publications Mekas later described simply as a “provincial weekly” and a “national semi-literary weekly” but that Casper clarifies were vehicles of, among other things, pro-German and anti-Semitic propaganda. Although it is a relief, though hardly a surprise, to learn of Mekas that, as Casper says, “none of his writings is anti-Semitic,” it is dismaying to learn of their publication in such vicious company—though we probably shouldn’t be surprised that this was the price of publishing anything at all, other than clandestinely, in occupied Lithuania.
Casper quotes Mekas as saying that later, in 1943–1944, “he became involved in anti-German activity”—and Casper confirms that it was at this “late stage in the war” that “most anti-Nazi activism began to occur among Lithuanians.” Still, he does not accept Mekas’s account of having finally fled Lithuania on account of his fear of arrest by the Germans, suggesting instead that it was the advancing Soviets he was afraid of. Given that Mekas had been active against the Soviet occupation that preceded the arrival of the Germans, this is plausible, but Casper presents no evidence against Mekas’s own explanation: he was afraid that a typewriter he’d been using to create a clandestine publication would be used to identify him. Casper cites the view of another authority, that 99 percent of those who fled Lithuania in 1944 were fleeing the Soviets, but this does not in itself throw any doubt on Mekas’s account. And if he was equally afraid of both sides, as he undoubtedly had a right to be, would that materially change the story?
Still, it’s undoubtedly true that, as Casper complains, Mekas “has been elusive when he addresses the war years, about which he mixes up important dates.” He seems to present himself as a witness to events he couldn’t have seen and to have forgotten things he actually experienced. But Mekas’s own explanation for his inaccuracies—the trauma of living amidst so many murders, and the need to respond to them as a poet if at all—seems worthy of more respect. Still, one thing should be clear: Casper has uncovered no evidence that Mekas ever did anything to be ashamed of, aside from his work on papers that published anti-Semitic material—none of which he himself wrote.
And yet Casper does not accept that this revelation is enough. In the end, he cites a 1978 account of a dream in which Mekas found himself having killed someone to encapsulate “the painful feelings of guilt and complicity” with which Mekas’s war experiences left him. The strong implication is that Mekas must have something more on his conscience than the survivor’s guilt that we’ve all read about, that perhaps he like so many others did something terrible in Lithuania—perhaps even killed someone himself. Really? Of course, Casper is smart enough to leave that implication unstated—to give himself enough wiggle room to deny that he ever intended to denigrate Mekas’s reputation in this shameful way. But then, don’t we all have our ways of being elusive when we want to get away with something? In any case, Casper’s presumption that, even in the absence of any sign of wrongdoing, Mekas owes a more detailed account of himself than he has cared to provide strikes me as having more in common with the attitude of an operative of Trump’s ICE confronting an asylum seeker than with that of a disinterested scholar.
New York City
Michael Casper replies:
I’m grateful that Barry Schwabsky has given me an opportunity to clarify my aims in writing about the life and work of Jonas Mekas. Mekas is, as Schwabsky points out, a kind and generous person who has mentored generations of aspiring filmmakers. He has had a long and productive life, and his stature is secure in the history of cinema and the present art world of New York. The goal of my essay was not to find “wrongdoing” by Mekas, as Schwabsky puts it, but rather, as I state at the outset, to demonstrate that “Mekas’s life during the war years was more complicated than he makes it out to be.” With the help of other sources, I situate his activities, statements, and writings, as best I can, in their historical context. I try to be fair to him, while remaining fair to the history and to the other people with whom his life intersected, especially the victims of mass violence in Biržai.
Mekas was not just a naive, neutral poet wandering the fields and forests of the Lithuanian countryside, as he would have us believe. He was deeply involved in political activism that led him to support the Nazi occupation of Lithuania during the critical period when Jews were killed; he only turned against the Nazis later, when, as he told me, “it became clear that they’re not going to give Lithuania real independence.” His involvement in these underground activities and above-ground publishing was exceptional for someone his age. While Mekas seems to have engaged in some anti-Nazi activism from 1943–1944—no doubt bravely and at great risk to himself—he has repeatedly manipulated his story, taking advantage of people’s ignorance of wartime Lithuania, to make himself appear, when useful, as victim, hero, or oblivious bystander. This is not merely an academic matter, an attempt “to uncover facts that remain obscure,” in Schwabsky’s words. Mekas’s experience of the war is at the heart of his highly autobiographical work, and his attendant artistic positions—extreme subjectivity, negation of history, reverence for romanticized rural folkways—pulsed through the American counterculture of the 1950s and 1960s. You can’t understand Mekas and his work without understanding where he and his ideas came from.
Schwabsky says that Mekas seems to remember “events he couldn’t have seen.” Based on my research, I think it’s possible that Mekas could have seen them. I do not think that Mekas was a killer, and I cited several pieces of evidence to underscore this point. Schwabsky claims that I do “not have the right” to attribute guilt to Mekas, but I bring up the question of guilt in the context of Mekas’s own statement about Lithuanians who did kill Jews: “Isn’t a not-small part of the curse and guilt of what you did also on me?”
Mekas has republished dozens of poems he wrote during the war, demonstrating that he is able to retrieve aspects of these years that reflect well on him. Schwabsky defends this selective memory of the war and suggests that it is perhaps an involuntary response to trauma. But in April, in London, Hans Ulrich Obrist asked Mekas at a public interview about the historian Eric Hobsbawm’s directive for the “need to protest against forgetting.” Mekas interrupted the question to declare, “My dream is that humanity someday would totally lose all memory. So there wouldn’t be always remembering who did what to my nation, to me.” This suggests to me that Mekas’s memory is not only selective but ideologically so. As for Mekas’s films, the truth of his life does not diminish the beauty of his work; it complicates and even enhances it.
The article “Taxing the Poor” in the May 10, 2018, edition has a statistic that seems very wrong to me, and which is sourced in neither the print nor the electronic version: “The median net worth of American households was just $56,335 [in 2013].”
According to the US Federal Reserve, as quoted in New Strategist Press, median US net worth for households was $83,700 in 2013 and $97,300 in 2016. These figures are nearly 50 percent higher than those given in the article. It can’t simply be a “constant dollars” mistake. What gives?
To the Editors:
In “Taxing the Poor” [NYR, May 10], David Cole reviews a pair of books that present, in somewhat different ways, the narrative about America commonly proclaimed by left-wing politicians and pundits. Cole himself clearly agrees with this narrative. According to it, “since the late 1970s, income and wealth disparities have once again grown dramatically.” Cole, like the author of one of the two books, further believes that the income and wealth disparities have a deleterious effect on the functioning of the American Republic.
I will not comment on the idea that the American republic does not function well. It does not. But not because of income and wealth disparities. Anyone interested in the causes of the frailties of American government should read recent research by political scientists and economists on the issue. Democracy for Realists by Achen and Bartels and The Myth of the Rational Voter by Caplan are must-reads.
The information about income and wealth disparities Cole cites is largely inaccurate or misleading. Cole says that by 2013 the CEOs of America’s most successful businesses earned, on average, almost three hundred times as much as their workers. I do not know how Cole defines “most successful businesses.” But for 2012 the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that there were 255,940 non-self-employed CEOs in America. For the same year the BLS estimated that the mean annual salary of these CEOs was $176,840, whilst the average annual pay of production and nonsupervisory employees on private nonfarm payrolls was $34,645. So the correct ratio of average CEO pay to average worker pay is a little over 5 to 1, not 300 to 1 as Cole claims.
Much more importantly, Cole, like one of the authors he reviews, thinks that the middle class in America is collapsing. But this is just false. Stephen Rose, an economist at the Urban Institute, recently did a study that indicates that the upper middle class has expanded to a record 29.4 percent of the American population as of 2014, compared to 12.9 percent in 1979. Rose defined the upper middle class as any household earning $100,000 to $350,000 annually for a family of three. (These figures are adjusted for inflation.) And Rose’s study indicates that as of 2014, the middle middle class and lower middle class together comprise a little more than 49 percent of the American population. There is no collapse of these two groups to more than offset the large increase of the upper middle class since the late 1970s. By the way, Rose’s study also shows that the percentage of the American population that is poor or near poor has declined since the late 1970s from about 25 percent to 19.7 percent. The information in Rose’s study flatly contradicts the myth of a collapsing middle class in America since the late 1970s.
Los Gatos, California
David Cole replies:
The figures I used came from the books I reviewed, and they are all backed up by reputable sources. For example, the data about CEOs at the nation’s most successful companies (defined as the top 350 businesses by sales) show that in 1965, CEO salaries were twenty times those of their typical production/nonsupervisory workers, while in 2013, they were 295.9 times those of such workers. (See “The Top Ten Charts of 2014,” Economic Policy Institute, December 2014.)
Mr. Rappaport’s further implications that the gap between the rich and the poor has not widened, and that the middle class remains as vital as ever, defy reality. From 1979 to 2008, 100 percent of all the benefits from growth in income, on average, went to the top 10 percent of Americans. The bottom 90 percent saw their income decline over the same period. In 2014, the top 10 percent received 47 percent of the nation’s income, not counting capital gains—a larger proportion than that percentile received during the Gilded Age. The individuals who make up the Forbes 400 have as much wealth as the entire African-American population and a third of the Latino population combined. The twenty wealthiest individuals are wealthier than the entire bottom half of the American population.
The figure for median net worth is based on a Russell Sage Foundation study: Fabian T. Pfeffer, Sheldon Danziger, and Robert F. Schoeni, “Wealth Levels, Wealth Inequality, and the Great Recession” (June 2014). The Federal Reserve and Russell Sage Foundation estimates of median household net worth in 2013 differ, as Mr. Russell points out, but whether the proper figure is $84,000 or $56,000, the important point is unchanged: there is a world of difference between those medians and the median net worth of members of Congress in the same year: $1 million.
We can, if we choose, blind ourselves to the reality that we are living in a second Gilded Age. Or we can accept the facts and consider their consequences. If we do not do something about the increasing inequality in our republic, it will continue to intensify the corrosive divisions that have already undermined our democracy.
We live in a time of testosterone. Although the US Food and Drug Administration has approved testosterone products only for men with low levels resulting from a handful of medical conditions—and despite no observed increase in this population—prescriptions for “T” (as the hormone is colloquially known) rose over three-fold in the US (and a staggering twelve-fold globally) from 2000 to 2011, prompting a federal warning about potential abuses of the hormone and the risk of cardiac events it could cause. The $2 billion worldwide industry represents a fraction of T’s total market, however, as an untold number of other users acquire it from sources outside conventional medical channels and institutions. T’s powers—actual or ascribed—are in unprecedented demand.
Testosterone has been culturally endowed with aspirational, almost magical, qualities since before the hormone was first synthesized in 1935. Scientists told the first and most important stories about this hormone. One of the earliest came from a sensational speech delivered by the eminent physiologist Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard at a meeting of the Société de Biologie of Paris in 1889. He reported the miraculous effects derived from an elixir of blood, semen, and “juice extracted from a testicle, crushed immediately after it has been taken from a dog or a guinea-pig,” which he self-injected, eager to reverse “the most troublesome miseries of advanced life.” The first injection, he told the crowd, produced “a radical change,” including increased physical stamina, “facility of intellectual labour,” and a markedly longer “jet of urine.” The greatest effect by far was on his “expulsion of fecal matters.” Despite what appeared to be great promise, editors writing in what would become TheNew England Journal of Medicine quickly cautioned against the “silly season” that might ensue, warning that “the sooner the general public, and especially septuagenarian readers of the latest sensation understand that for the physically used up and worn out there is no secret of rejuvenation, no elixir of youth, the better.”
Brown-Séquard was building on the idea that testicular tissue contained the substance responsible for strength and virility, even for masculinity itself. In the decades that followed, scientists dedicated to uncovering the cause of observed sex differences looked where they understood them to be rooted, in the gonads. Unable to study testosterone directly because it had yet to be isolated in the laboratory, scientists castrated animals and observed which functions and tissues were affected, focusing on what they considered masculine effects such as mounting behavior in rodents. They then sought to restore the observed effects by implanting bits of testicular tissue. If the affected functions were restored, they attributed those changes to the glands and their secretions. But early experiments with so-called sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone) yielded findings that researchers described as “strange,” “paradoxical,” and “anomalous,” not least because the hormones were not sex-exclusive, and because their functions went well beyond determining sexual characteristics; testosterone, for example, influences many biological processes in all humans, including heart function, liver metabolism, and bone development.
These puzzling and contradictory findings did little to undermine the idea that testosterone was the “male sex hormone,” the molecular driver of all things masculine—a notion that still finds widespread support among sources as varied as researchers at the National Institutes of Health and reporters for The New York Times. That the hallmarks of testosterone have been yoked exclusively to men, and that the hormone’s effects credited as the primary drivers of sexual development and sex differences, are less a function of science than of ideology.
Even before its laboratory synthesis, this “chemical messenger of masculinity,” in the words of a Dutch researcher, was in search of a market. In the early part of the twentieth century, men who faced physical decline associated with aging sometimes subjected themselves to radical interventions in hopes of restoration (seeking to be a younger iteration of themselves), or transformation (seeking to be the person they wanted to be). No idea was too outlandish or overreaching. Injections of testicular extracts from guinea pigs, as well as grafts and implants of testicles from goats and chimpanzees were purported to remedy an astonishing range of ailments and conditions, including senility, dementia, diabetes, TB, acne, paranoia, and gangrene. Though some of these claims did have a basis in the scientific knowledge of the era (and, importantly, would later provide a foundation for hormone replacement therapy in clinical medicine), today we know that such procedures could not have worked. In some of the “transplants,” for example, the organ was simply sutured to other tissue.
Nevertheless, doctors hocked their procedures and newspapers heralded the amazing results including a “fountain of youth” in a newly-established chimpanzee breeding colony that would “place glands within reach of all”; journal articles reported patients with improved eyesight, increased appetite, and “a feeling of buoyancy, a joy of living, an increased energy, loss of tired feeling, increased mental activity and many other beneficial effects.” Beyond the doctors’ offices that men frequented in search of the miracles that could be had, pharmaceutical companies and their marketers, as well as researchers, elaborated with the aid of popular writers the many alchemical powers T was reputed to hold.
In the more than eight decades since the hormone’s isolation, testosterone’s appeal has expanded for reasons that go far beyond its supposed powers of rejuvenation. The universe of people using T, and the reasons for which it is used, transcend the categories “men” and “low testosterone,” respectively, by such magnitude that it is mind-bending even to list, let alone sort, them. Men, women, teenagers, the elderly, the healthy, and the sick all take T; and they do so to mitigate symptoms (lack of energy, depression), to boost attributes (muscle mass, vocal pitch, confidence), or to halt decline (brain fog, diminished sex drive). T is used to intervene not only in the “diseased” body, but also to optimize a desired state of being. People likewise take T to affirm their gender identity or to be read differently by others—menopausal women, flaccid men, and “gender hackers” included. Bodies are sculpted, and psyches are, too. T has become a powerful technology for the production of subjectivity, the most consequential of which is gender.
As a synecdoche and a vehicle for masculinity—its very nickname conveys a punchy charisma—T embodies longings of all possible dimensions and gravity. But the shared wellspring of those desires almost always involves a quest for masculinity and its signifiers, offering hope for what it might enact and enable. A magical substance with a padded résumé, T also remains a potent steroid with occasionally unpredictable effects that only sometimes align with these aspirations. Thus the transformations that testosterone effects, whether intended or not, can also elicit fear and disappointment. T has its own agency.
One of the more striking contemporary narratives in what we might call the T genre—stories that chronicle the use of T and uphold the hormone’s reputation— is Andrew Sullivan’s 2000 piece in The New York Times Magazine, “The He Hormone.” After being prescribed testosterone to counter HIV-related hormonal declines, Sullivan documented with both amazement and precision the changes his body and mind underwent: “I can actually feel its power on almost a daily basis.” He reported weight gain, a bulkier neck and chest, increased energy and strength, improved mood, and an “appetite in every sense of that word expanded beyond measure.” The changes were so immediate and dramatic and, dare I say, stereotypically masculine that he was prompted to generalize his personal experience to all men, ascribing the changes to T and thus to nature:
It affects every aspect of our society, from high divorce rates and adolescent male violence to the exploding cults of bodybuilding and professional wrestling. It helps explain, perhaps better than any other single factor, why inequalities between men and women remain so frustratingly resilient in public and private life.
The experience was evidently so profound that, more than a decade later, Sullivan was still reflecting that T “correlates very highly with what we think of as culturally masculine attributes: physical strength, risk-taking, competitiveness, ego and the constant desire to fuck.” He concluded that “the power of testosterone as a hormone should never be under-estimated… It reveals what we cannot deny about our nature.”
Put another way, the uneven distribution of these traits (thanks to higher or lower testosterone levels) is what propels men to the top of the social hierarchy and relegates women to second-class status. Testosterone, in this telling, explains male dominance as a phenomenon entirely determined by T.
What Sullivan is, of course, doing, as many others have done before and since, is telling stories. Stories about bodies and behavior, about gender, and about T that reinforce gender ideologies and assumptions about gender difference. These stories propagate false facts despite being based on embodied effects—many of them from individuals who are themselves taking T, but with plenty of corroboration from scientists, doctors, marketers, and influencers, all of whom have particular stakes in T’s powers. Though they may differ in their specifics, these stories share a resolute assuredness about the hormone’s effects that seems to foreclose more critical questions about the hormone and its capacities. They are stories that reinforce shop-worn ideas of male-female difference and attribute those differences to T.
The durability of these accounts is what recently encouraged Ira Glass, the host of the NPR show This American Life, to dust off “one of our very favorite shows,” which first aired fifteen years earlier, “about testosterone and just how much it determines our fates and our personalities.” The episode had included an almost comic laundry list of T’s greatest hits. In one segment, the producer interviewed Griffin Hansbury, a psychoanalyst specializing in gender and sexuality, who had taken T to the point of having what the producer characterized as “the testosterone of two linebackers.” Hansbury, like Sullivan, recounted a vivid change immediately after starting T: “Everything I looked at, everything I touched turned to sex.” And so a “big, shuddering, warm” Xerox machine became erotic, as did a red Mustang convertible that caused a “jolt in my pants, this very physical, visceral, sexual reaction.” The producer joked, “Testosterone didn’t just turn you into a man. It turned you into Rush Limbaugh.” Hansbury was sensitive to this, and troubled by it, saying, “I felt like a monster a lot of the time. And it made me understand men… And I would really berate myself for it.” And yet, he said, it made him feel like a man.
Women also tell these stories. In a first-person narrative in The Washington Post a few years ago, a woman described what happened when her doctor added testosterone to the hormones she was taking after her hysterectomy. Her narration, like Sullivan’s and Hansbury’s and many of the most animated accounts of being on T, was written very soon after the drug was first administered. She described looking at men as they passed her in an airport, after only two weeks on T: “I wanted to do them all. Men—young and old, thin and heavy, coiffed and shaggy… Not all rated attractive, but I found the idea of sex with each captivating.” The doctor had not mentioned the “constant sexual distraction. Or the irrational anger,” such as her rage at herself for dropping a fork, and at the mailman who “carelessly slammed a box onto the front steps.” When the woman went back to her doctor to describe her experiences, the doctor said, “Now you know what it’s like to have your brain bathed in testosterone.” Or, as the author put it, “What it’s like to live like a man.”
These testimonies share a sealed and confident view of T’s powers. By contrast, Maggie Nelson, writing in The Argonauts, a memoir filled with meditations on gender, laid bare an initial uncertainty about T’s capabilities, its potential effects, and its role as a necessary tool for masculinization or masculinity. Nelson related how her partner, the artist Harry Dodge, who “is happy to identify as a butch on T,” had chosen to take testosterone in addition to undergoing top surgery:
I suddenly remembered scouring the teeny print of a Canadian testosterone information pamphlet (Canada is light-years ahead of the United States on this front). I had indeed been trying to figure out, in a sort of teary panic, what about you might change on T, and what would not… you had begun to lay the groundwork to have top surgery and start injecting T, which causes the uterus to shrivel. The surgery didn’t worry me as much as the T—there’s a certain clarity to excision that hormonal reconfiguration lacks.
In her account, Nelson doesn’t specify the changes she fears, but that she is both uncertain and scared about the hormone’s effects while also cleaving testosterone from masculinity beautifully captures T’s complexity. “You’ve had a beard for years and already pass [for male] 90 percent of the time without T,” she writes. To many others, for whom T is ripe with overdetermined investments and desires, hormonal reconfiguration does have all the clarity of excision that Nelson pointed to regarding surgery. Where Sullivan is certain, Nelson is much less so. “As it turned out,” she concludes, “my fears were unwarranted. Which isn’t to say you haven’t changed. But the biggest change of all has been a measure of peace.”
What testosterone actually does to and for an individual is complex. When people want to know what T does, they usually start with the gender of the person using the T. What does T do for men? For women? This approach tends to assume that people within a given group take T for the same reasons or want the same results. It also assumes that the hormone will have similar effects in bodies within those groups. T’s effect for a given individual is inflected by that body’s particularity and history: its age; its current level of, including past exposure to, the hormone; the effects of habituation over time; the quantity, location, and sensitivity of androgen receptors; and the presence of other hormones. All these factors, many of which vary in response to social and environmental stimuli, play a part, as do dose and exposure to that dose over time.
When T is taken at higher doses some physical changes are likely, but T is more like a plated meal than a buffet: no one individual gets to choose precisely what changes it produces. As one friend who had started T said to me, “Let me know if you find a way to get the big muscles and keep the head hair!” It can fail people no matter how much they take, no matter how much they desire some effects but not others. For all the dramatic changes Hansbury experienced when taking T, he concluded that T let him down: he felt he had been more masculine as a “butch dyke.” He described asking people, “What kind of a guy am I?” The answer was not what he had hoped for:
They see a nerd, which I never was before. I was always really cool and popular and hip and whatever. And now I’m 5’ 4”, and I work out, but I’m not real muscular. And I’m pretty small. I’m pale-skinned, and my hair has started to thin, and I’ve got glasses. And of course, I’m also the sensitive guy now. I used to be the butch dyke, and I was seen as very aggressive. And I was more masculine in many ways—outwardly, anyway—before testosterone.
Clinical encounters often involve tempering expectations. As Ronica Mukerjee, a nurse practitioner who specializes in working with transgender individuals, told me, it’s important for those considering T to be aware of the unpredictable changes such as “whether people gain hair or lose hair, whether their body fat redistributes in a phenotypically cis-male pattern, and if their muscle mass significantly increases or not.” This uncertainty can be especially troubling if one’s reason for taking T is to be perceived as more masculine. Like Nelson, Mukerjee understands masculinity as independent of T. “For almost all trans masculine patients,” she told me, “the assertion and understanding of their selves and bodies as masculine happens regardless of testosterone initiation. But the lack of institutional and social acceptance for masculinity, without the addition of testosterone, can be part of the complex reasons that they initiate T.”
What T actually does cannot be easily separated from what one wants it to do. How do you ask a substance to make you more masculine or to give you a masculine trait without imbuing the changes that substance makes with your idea of masculinity? Even some of the earliest T experimenters wondered about what Brown-Séquard called “auto-suggestion without hypnotization.” There is no reason to think that ideas and ideals of masculinity are immune to the placebo effect. This doesn’t mean that what T does is entirely imaginary or unknowable, but it does mean our knowing should be far more nuanced than it is. Despite masterful appeals from the pharmaceutical industry, among others, to specific desires, such as increased libido, people approach T with different goals and desires. When people take T for its association with masculinity, it makes sense they would foreground and highlight what they understand as its masculine effects.
Consider, for instance, that we tend not to hear any of the magical stories of dramatic transformation from people who’ve been taking T for twenty years. Are the effects less noteworthy or just less novel? Do people settle into whatever changes took place, over time rendering them less remarkable? Or is it that we only hear from those who are most excited, most vocal? In the case of Hansbury, fifteen years later, does the Xerox machine still thrill?
I put these questions to Hansbury. He compared his experience to a young man’s passing through puberty: the tracking and noting of every feeling, behavior, and physical change, but also the curiosity and eagerness to see how these changes shaped how he was seen and how people interacted with him. This echoed what Sullivan described when he revisited the topic: “Twenty years ago, as it surged through my pubescent body, [testosterone] deepened my voice, grew hair on my face and chest, strengthened my limbs, made me a man.” But there is a crucial difference, Hansbury noted, between going through puberty and starting T. In the case of puberty, your peers are going through the same process as you are, which gives the experience a structure and context that is absent if the changes are happening only to you at age thirty.
The familiar stories have dominated to such an extent that it can be easy to miss any other version that doesn’t fit the master narrative. After starting T, Hansbury said in the radio interview, “I became interested in science, I found myself understanding physics in a way I never had before.” Even the interviewer squirmed at this—the interview subject had “reinforced a lot of stereotypes that we’ve almost dispelled with.” But there is a magnetism in these stories that seems irresistible. The uncanny correlation of taking T with suddenly understanding physics might slip by as yet another effect of T—except for how far-fetched it is. Rae Rosenberg, who self-describes as “genderfluid, femmy trans man” and who has also taken testosterone for about eight years, commented, “Maybe [Hansbury] caught a late-night Carl Sagan special, or got lost in a Wikipedia vortex on string theory. Maybe it’s just normal for people of all genders in their early twenties to find that they develop new interests.” Maybe it wasn’t T at all.
One of the most entertaining of contemporary T stories has been written by the gender theorist Paul B. Preciado, who, in his book Testo Junkie, recorded a year-long experiment of taking T in what he calls “DIY bioterrorism of gender.” Preciado, a keen and critical observer of both self and society, argues outright that “testosterone isn’t masculinity. Nothing allows us to conclude that the effects produced by testosterone are masculine.” And yet, this memoir is brimming with what one reader characterized as “bro-y braggadocio” that largely affirms the connection between the two. T created “excitation, aggressiveness, strength,” Preciado wrote, and an “explosion of the desire to fuck, walk, go out everywhere in the city.” It’s only by paying attention that the unexpected arises—such as the changes Preciado experienced in the domestic sphere: “testosterone compels me to tidy up and clean my apartment, frenetically, all night long… a profound and efficient sorting.” This is probably the first account of housekeeping mania attributed to T, not least because the dominant T story has never associated masculinity with domesticity.
What we know scientifically is not an adequate foundation for what people think T does for them. Take, for example, the recently-published testosterone trials in elderly men, which were conducted after the National Institute on Aging and the National Cancer Institute expressed concern about the rapidly increasing number of men using testosterone and asked the Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine) to examine what was known about the risks and benefits of testosterone supplementation. Despite decades of widespread use, the IOM found insufficient evidence to conclude whether taking T improved libido, vitality, or cognition—and was equally inconclusive on any dangers it might pose. Conducted by medical researchers across twelve US communities, these double-blind, placebo-controlled trials, randomly designated elderly men to receive either T or a placebo for one year. The findings were almost the opposite of what we would expect: the effect on sexual function, physical function, vitality, and cognition were largely unremarkable; cardiovascular risks were raised. T did help with anemia and increased bone mineral density, but those are far less sexy, as it were, and not what has fueled the hormone’s popularity.
How, then, to reconcile these findings with the stories of raging libidinal improvement in middle-aged men? I don’t mean that T is immaterial, imaginary, or ineffectual, or that our scientific or experiential knowledge of T is completely false. Testosterone, in human beings, is necessary for health and well-being. But testosterone’s diverse aspirational powers are such that taking T is, at some level, an imaginative act. The experience must powerful, heady, thrilling, all-consuming; and a person who is taking T knowingly seeking certain changes is someone highly attuned to any shift. The idea of feeling more “masculine” may be more powerful than the hormone itself—not least because T raises tricky questions about what the historian Joan Scott has called “the evidence of experience.”
Scott challenges the way that first-person experiences are often viewed as unassailable, beyond the reach of critique. “What could be truer, after all,” Scott asks, “than a subject’s own account of what he or she has lived through?” Scott argues that there is a danger in viewing personal narratives as incontrovertible evidence for the “fact of difference,” since doing so naturalizes the difference and obfuscates how our very experience is structured by social and historical forces and the interpretive frameworks we derive from them. There is no experience outside these constitutive conditions. This is no less true for our understanding of what T does.
In Andrew Sullivan’s generalization, for example, one might question his jump from his individual experience to that of all men, and then further to social structures. That is, from experiencing more masculine characteristics to his inference that testosterone therefore provides the biological basis for male-female hierarchies. There is a tautology embedded in his conflation of masculine traits with the social status they ostensibly confer. It is one thing, though, to say that testosterone exaggerates traits often associated with men, who are at the top of most traditional social hierarchies, and quite another to assert that it is testosterone that puts men there in the first place.
In Testosterone Rex, the psychologist Cordelia Fine argues that it is the way in which risk-taking and competition are defined and measured that gives the impression that men “naturally” excel in certain fields, and women don’t. It isn’t that women don’t compete or take risks—anyone defining competitiveness as exclusively masculine has never seen a mother trying to get her kid into the “right” school—it’s that researchers have conceptualized risk in traditionally masculine ways, focusing on entrepreneurial behavior, extreme sports, and sports betting, to name a few examples. Whereas, for women, Fine says, “quit[ting] or scal[ing] back your job when children arrive is a significant economic risk. Going on a date can end in sexual assault. Leaving a marriage is financially, socially and emotionally risky. In the United States, being pregnant is about twenty times more likely to result in death than is a sky dive.”
Nevertheless, upon hearing these stories, some want the hormone to bring about not a physical or behavioral change, but a social one. Løchlann, a friend in their forties (who goes by the pronoun “they”), has a slew of reasons for taking T, among them to “be taken seriously and paid what my male colleagues get.” They said this partly in jest, but it was also born of a deep and longstanding frustration about discrimination that I, too, feel. The gender differences that Sullivan and others take for granted as natural are social facts rooted in long histories of oppression, discrimination, and marginalization. It’s easy to see what would be attractive about the idea that a patch or pill can eradicate these problems for a given individual. When I point out to Løchlann that this locates the solution to a structural problem in an individual body and does nothing to lessen the broader effects of the gender hierarchy’s male and masculine bias, their answer was understandable: “That’s what I’m after. I’m so sick of being a second-, third-, fourth-class person. I’ve been trying to upset the gender hierarchy for fifty years. I’ve done my bit.” I get this, too.
Here, then, T is understood as a substance that can be leveraged for its presumed power to rectify inequity. This goal is reasonable considering T’s history of use by middle-aged men who seek to reinforce the conventional ideals of masculinity that, in turn, enable men to maintain their privileged position in the gender hierarchy. The problem with this view of T, though, is that by suggesting that bodies, rather than society, are the basis for differences that are used to justify gender equities, it effectively dooms collective efforts to address those inequities and absolves those in power of their responsibility for sustaining them.
As the variety of people using T continues to expand, so do new possibilities for bodies, experiences, and subjectivities. In other words, even as T is used to shore up traditional ideas of sexual difference, it also destabilizes such difference. What if everyone had access to this “masculinity”? What could this chemical accomplish? What would masculinity even be? Preciado posits that T has the potential to smash the gender binary because it enables the expression of masculinity in bodies assigned female at birth. But as Hansbury also told me about his days as a butch dyke: “Female masculinity does not give you male privilege in our heteronormative, gender-conforming society. It doesn’t lead to a pay raise. Store clerks didn’t want to help me; they avoided me.”
For all the exciting ways that testosterone may be used to disrupt gender, can these expanded uses fully “seize the technology without buying the ideology,” as Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English asked in their 1971 book Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness? A broader range of people taking T certainly complicates binaries of sex and gender, but to what extent will the result be to undo naturalized assumptions about gender difference and to what extent will it reaffirm the primacy of—and T’s coupling with—masculinity?
Sullivan recently raised the stakes when he accused feminists and their supporters of sidestepping natural male dominance: “in our increasingly heated debate about gender relations and the #MeToo movement, this natural reality—reflected in chromosomes and hormones no scientist disputes—is rarely discussed.” The cumulative effect of seeing these links asserted time and time again is what lends the nature argument its solidity. The T story has a perennial cycle that has proven exceptionally hard to interrupt, continually invoking views that remain widespread despite decades of incisive critique—everything from why women are underrepresented in STEM to why men are incarcerated more than women. But a constantly diversifying group of people taking T cannot by itself mitigate the problems of inequality that get pinned to T. Redistributing testosterone molecule by molecule will never dismantle regimes of power, but neither will the wholesale refutation of T. Demoting and disrupting its centrality in ideological conceptions of masculinity would make room for something better, though. And even that would be revolutionary.
I came to the Met to see Thérèse—Thérèse Blanchard, Balthus’s model and muse. The museum owns two of the eleven paintings Balthus made of the girl between 1936 and 1939, when she turned fourteen, including Thérèse Dreaming, the object of recent #MeToo-related controversy and an online petition, signed by thousands, requesting that the painting either be removed from view or displayed differently. The Met has so far declined to do so.
To my surprise, it is the smaller of the two canvases, titled simply Thérèse, that I find the more immediately arresting. The girl is pushed to the extreme foreground of the composition and cropped rather dramatically at the legs and feet, as though Balthus was zooming in on her with a lens. The effect is jarring and claustrophobic and serves to amplify Thérèse’s striking presence. The picture, though less conspicuously erotic than Thérèse Dreaming, is charged by a tension between its subject’s childishly remote gaze—a mix of dreamy inwardness and pouty disaffection—and her red-jacketed, seductively reclining figure. It is not the pose of a mere child. The tension, if anything, is augmented by Balthus’s awkward depiction of the legs, which defy anatomical logic.
A few galleries away is Thérèse Dreaming. Here she has been placed in a dark cave-like interior and offset by a still life with a crumpled cloth that seems lifted out of a Cézanne painting. As with the other picture, there is a certain jaggedness in Balthus’s articulation of the anatomical form, especially his modeling of the girl’s face. Thérèse’s nose is painted in a way that gives her a strangely harsh quality (harsher than I remember from reproductions), which appears at odds with the refined coolness of the painting. That coolness contains and masks the suggestive core of the picture: the exposure of the dreaming girl’s underwear (apparently unacknowledged by her, visible to us).
I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a friend, a successful painter of highly realistic portraits and figures. He complained of the awkwardness of Balthus’s people: they aren’t real or alive. They look like mannequins. I understood what my friend was saying but tried my best to defend Balthus on the grounds that he was not striving for total naturalism or verisimilitude. His figures weren’t meant to be imitations of real life; they were mysterious emanations from a powerfully subjective vision. Any awkwardness in the paintings, then, was in some part deliberate. Still, I find myself wondering: Had Balthus been a more accurate painter, at least according to my friend’s lights, would he have been a lesser artist?
Mia Merrill, the author of the petition addressing Thérèse Dreaming, writes that “given the current climate around sexual assault and allegations that become more public each day, in showcasing this work for the masses without providing any type of clarification, The Met is, perhaps unintentionally, supporting voyeurism and the objectification of children.” The implication is that the achievement of Thérèse Dreaming has been purchased at the expense of its young female model; that Balthus has, in effect, objectified and exploited her for his own perverse purposes; and that the Met, by continuing to display the painting, is complicit in those perversions. Balthus’s work has thus been assimilated into our contemporary reckoning with patriarchal abuse and privilege: the coercive sexual and ideological power men wield over women in ways both implicit and explicit.
There are various questions that can be asked fairly of the petition and its author. Who exactly are the undifferentiated “masses” to whom it somewhat condescendingly refers, who are so in need of protection from Balthus? Did Balthus’s work only “objectify” his young female models, as passive recipients of the artist’s (and viewer’s) voyeuristic intrigue? Or was he not attempting to present something of the young woman’s own subjective erotic experience, however troubling and taboo—especially in our own time—this may be?
What exactly does Merrill mean when she describes Balthus’s work as “overtly pedophilic”? Is it that Thérèse Dreaming itself constitutes an act of pedophilia or that the painting encourages a pedophilic response in the viewer: “romanticizes the sexualization of a child,” in the words of the petition? Does the potential titillation or, alternatively, disturbance of certain viewers necessarily reflect anything of Balthus’s own intentions? Should it matter, for example, that the sexuality and nudity of Balthus’s girls rarely appear “overt” in any ordinary descriptive meaning of the term—and even less so when compared to representations of adolescent girls by Gauguin, Schiele, and others? (The one obvious exception is Balthus’s seldom exhibited The Guitar Lesson, from 1934, which shows a woman violently grabbing the hair and thigh of her half-naked student.)
Merrill’s petition concludes by recommending that if Thérèse Dreaming is not removed, it should at least be placed in “context,” by accompanying it with the following sort of message: “Some viewers find this piece offensive or disturbing, given Balthus’ artistic infatuation with young girls.” What to make of this claim about Balthus’s “infatuation” with girls, which seems to cast doubt upon the art through an insinuating reference to the artist’s perversion? Can an artistic preoccupation with a subject matter be reduced to a troubling personal one?
Isn’t part of what distinguishes artists the way they transcend their personal preoccupations by making aesthetic order out of the inner disorder that is, to one degree or another, our common human lot? And if so, shouldn’t artists be judged less on the merit of their preoccupations than on how effectively they shape, realize, and make them available to others for contemplation? Finally, can one really “contextualize” art without, in some sense, prescribing the proper attitude to be taken toward it? That is, without foreclosing the possibilities and the unruliness of art itself?
I recently discussed Thérèse Dreaming with an older woman, an architect and former museum conservator. She told me that one thing she disliked about the painting was the brown spot on the girl’s underwear, which guided the viewer’s attention in a way that felt manipulative. I wasn’t sure if she was bothered by the brownness of the spot—with its possible menstrual or scatological connotations—or just the spot’s function as a focal point that drew one in, that narrowed one’s attention (like the punctum of a photograph, in Roland Barthes’s phrase—the point of interest, “that accident which pricks me”). Whatever the case, I was highly skeptical—in fact, in complete denial. I had looked carefully at the painting and had never noticed a brown spot. The whole thing struck me as absurd. The spot, I told myself, must be a projection of her imagination onto the painting.
Feeling unsettled, however, about my own dismissiveness, I returned again to the Met and to Thérèse Dreaming. This time, I saw it, a sort of brown triangular shadow across the bottom of the girl’s panties and the slip of her skirt. I had been wrong after all about the absence of the spot. Still, it remained for me a rather incidental detail. I experienced no “prick”; it did not draw me in; it barely registered at all. Certainly I did not feel that I had been manipulated by Balthus.
The heterogeneity of our reactions to and perceptions of art should, in principle, be a caution against the absolutism of our reactions and perceptions—an incitement, that is, to interpretive humility. There are many ways to look at a painting like Thérèse Dreaming. One can be struck, for example, by the painting’s intrinsic formal properties: its rendering and compositional patterning of line, shape, and color. One can respond instead to the work’s various extra-aesthetic possibilities—the psychological and spiritual meanings it may encode. One can be elated, outraged, or simply unmoved. One can be offended, as Mia Merrill was.
But should any particular reaction be imposed between a prospective viewer and the work itself through a “contextualizing” message? Merrill’s petition sounds so assured about the ultimate meaning and troublesome nature of Balthus’s paintings. However justifiable its larger concerns may be, the petition betrays a strange incuriosity about art, an unwillingness on the part of its author to distance herself from her own convictions. There is something limiting about its politicized and prescriptive attitude toward aesthetic experience. It reflects perhaps a more general cultural exhaustion, as though a certain capacity for wonder—a sense of the inadequacy of one’s own understanding before a given work of art—has given way to contemporary knowingness: a sense that the only or the deepest understanding one needs to have about something is that it is “problematic.”
The petition’s charges against Balthus are not exactly novel. In his own day, he was accused of being a pornographer and a pedophile for painting as he did. Still, there is an added irony in the fact that Balthus’s paintings are now being examined from the perspective of our contemporary cultural politics, for throughout his life Balthus insisted on the autonomy of the aesthetic—on its disconnection from the factual and contingent entanglements of history and politics. A late son of the fin de siècle, mentored by Rilke, Balthus became a sort of high priest in the religion of art—a devoted aesthete for whom art served as a supreme fiction that could penetrate deeper realities beneath the surface of things.
As has been well documented, Balthus went so far as to fashion fiction out of his own life, inventing aristocratic origins for himself and denying his Jewish roots. The grandson of an Orthodox cantor on his mother’s side, he proclaimed himself variously the descendant of Lord Byron and of Polish royalty. Such aestheticism is easy enough to mock, but Balthus took it with utmost seriousness. And it seems to provide a starting point from which to view some of his painterly preoccupations.
I’d like, in this connection, to add my own interpretation—or really series of speculative associations—about the meaning of Balthus’s Thérèse paintings. If there is some link between Balthus’s devotion to art and his devotion to adolescence, it may possibly lie in this: adolescence represents a transitional stage between the worlds of childhood and adulthood. The adolescent inhabits both worlds without fully belonging to either one.
The girls in Balthus’s paintings are frozen on the canvas in perpetual states of becoming, with one foot in the timeless unconditioned world of childhood and one foot in the time-ravaged conditioned world of adulthood. They seem to possess a dawning self-awareness, a glancing acknowledgment of their own sexuality that can never quite blossom into full sexual knowledge. Thérèse’s gaze suggests such a duality—lost somewhere between childish naiveté and adult self-consciousness. And I suspect that for an aesthete like Balthus, something about adolescence seemed emblematic of the this-worldly/otherworldly duality of his art, as well as of the condition of his engagement with material reality: abstracted, mysterious, partly averted, still tethered to the dream world of childhood.
Balthus’s painting The Golden Days (1944–1946), for example, shows a girl gazing into a mirror with her legs partly spread. Behind her, with his back to us, squats a man fixing a fire. The painting brings to mind a statement from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing that touches on the passive objectification of women in Western art:
Men dream of women. Women dream of themselves being dreamt of. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at…. Sometimes the glance [women] meet is their own, reflected back from a real mirror.
What is interesting, however, is the way Balthus’s ever-ambiguous painting seems to both anticipate and complicate Berger’s perspective. Is the mirror-absorbed girl in The Golden Days aware of the squatting man? Is she spreading her legs for his or her own pleasure, or in languid unconcern? Is the man merely a figment of her fantasy life? Perhaps the girl’s partial exposure of herself is meant to symbolize the artist’s partial self-exposure. Perhaps the displaced eroticism of the artist’s creative act is symbolized by the displaced eroticism of adolescence—displaced not onto a canvas but back into the adolescent’s not yet realized self. If Balthus’s girls are muse figures, are they also proxy acts of self-portraiture? I don’t know.
An artist told me that his daughter, when she was a child, kindled to Balthus’s paintings because they reminded her of fairy tales. I too have had this impression. But fairy tales in what specific sense? Not, I gather, in the sense of their innocence, for Balthus’s paintings are anything but innocent. Rather, perhaps, in the supernatural or mythological form of the fairy tale, with its landscape of recurring archetypes: the hero, the princess, the good father or mother, the tyrant or witch. As a young artist, Balthus created a series of print illustrations of Wuthering Heights, clearly drawn to the book’s primal, fairy tale–like atmosphere (one such illustration formed the basis of a 1937 painting, The Blanchard Children, that shows Thérèse and her brother, Hubert, dreamily absorbed in their exclusive worlds). And Balthus’s own work seems similarly charged with a mythological force and resonance.
This is also a way of suggesting that Balthus is something he’s not always credited with being: a religious painter—but of a most peculiar kind. There is very little explicitly or doctrinally religious in his work. Instead, Balthus created a mythology for himself, out of his own obsessions. His work unfolds a private universe of signs and symbols—dreaming and reading children, mirrors and windows, chairs and tables, apples and pears—that gain in density and suppleness as they accumulate across paintings and, finally, achieve a kind of cryptic internal dialogue. Take, to cite just one instance, the eerie gnome-like creature of The Room (1952–1954), opening a window curtain to illuminate a recumbent nude, reimagined thirty years later as the artist in The Painter and His Model (1980–1981), standing before a sunlit window, facing away from a table of fruit and a reading girl.
The central object of Balthus’s symbolism, however, is the adolescent girl, along with the cat who so often accompanies her. Indeed, the cat is a mirror of the girl (and perhaps, by extension, of Balthus): both isolated in their dreamy interiority and possessed of the round eyes and cheeks of children; both frozen in an immediate and endless present, outside of time and place, without past or future. Of course, Balthus was far from the first to conceive of the quasi-religious import of girls and cats (cats have been worshiped at least since the Egyptians). But in his work, these symbols are highly particularized and stylized—conjured afresh.
Thérèse Dreaming can accordingly be seen as a type of religious painting. People have criticized the cat lapping up milk in the right foreground of the composition. They find its presence excessive—a redundant and vulgar layering of sexual symbolism. The cat is excessive, but I think for different reasons. To me, it suggests the anarchic intrusion of a fantasy object into a more narrowly descriptive reality—the interpolation, that is, of the artist’s private archetype into the pictorial space. It is as though, as one shifts from the smaller Thérèse portrait to Thérèse Dreaming—from the compositional tautness of the former to the expansiveness of the latter—one finds Balthus plunging deeper into himself, giving himself over more fully to his obsessions and the emanations of his artistic unconscious.
The mythological component of Balthus’s paintings made his work congenial to the Surrealists, who tried to recruit him to their causes. But Balthus disclaimed the association. He had no strategy and no definitive style. Compare, for example, the edgy realism of the Met’s Thérèse paintings with the more burnished formalism of the paintings Balthus made of Laurence Bataille a decade later (such as The Week of Four Thursdays). Or, for that matter, with Nude in Front of a Mantel, painted in 1955 (and now in the Metropolitan’s Lehman Collection): a Morandi-like study in the geometry of the figure that has the flaky texture of a fresco.
And Balthus’s vision was as singular as it was restless, again unlike that of the Surrealists, who tended to make their symbolism transparent and universal by programmatically inverting dream life over conscious life, the irrational over the rational. Balthus, by contrast, trafficked less in transparencies or universals than in private ambiguities. His paintings seem “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts,” in Keats’s famous words. They settle only on the unsettling, enigmatic space between reality and dream.
How, then, is one to defend Balthus’s work, assuming it can be “defended” at all? Not, I think, by denying the erotic quality of the paintings, as Balthus himself was sometimes prone to do, insisting that he was interested exclusively in matters of structural form while implying that any attribution of eroticism to his work was evidence only of the dirty minds of viewers. Is there another way of understanding the sexuality of Thérèse Dreaming (and other Balthus paintings of girls): not as a thing to be wished away or dismissed—either as the infatuation of the perverse artist or as the projection of the prurient viewer—but instead as an undeniable part of the work’s power?
Here I borrow from Lionel Trilling, who in 1958 published an essay on Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita titled “The Last Lover.” The essay sought to defend the book from, on the one hand, its outraged critics, who attacked it as pornography, and, on the other hand, certain of its apologists (among whom Nabokov, another master aesthete, could himself be counted), who downplayed its erotically shocking nature. Trilling’s point was that Lolita was shocking but “not for the reason that books are commonly thought to be shocking.” Rather, for Trilling, Lolita was a modern representation of “passion-love”—an eclipsed mode of writing familiar from Shakespeare to Anna Karenina, in which love figures as tragic, obsessive, and deeply subversive of social convention.
Part of Trilling’s argument was rooted in a claim about the tendency of modern secular societies—in which marriage and other conventions become far less binding and romantic worship is increasingly looked upon as a form of neurosis—to flatten out and invalidate the scandalizing power of Eros. And so, according to Trilling, Nabokov took recourse in the most taboo of subjects in order to reconstitute passion-love in all its violent and tragic tenderness and subversiveness.
Nabokov’s anguished account of erotic rapture in Lolita stands, of course, at quite a remove from Balthus’s veiled renderings of dormant sexuality in paintings like Thérèse Dreaming. (Though how close Nabokov comes to the spirit of Balthus’s girls when he has Humbert Humbert describe the “fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm” of his nymphets.) Yet Trilling’s broader notion of reconstituting an old and endangered mode of feeling through the representation of charged subject matter does seem germane to the consideration of Balthus’s paintings and even, perhaps, of his aims.
Guy Davenport, for example, in A Balthus Notebook (1989), his wonderfully epigrammatic ode to the painter, writes that “Balthus is everywhere concerned with returning to subjects of perennial interest that have lost their immediacy and along with it their meaning.”* Most basic among Balthus’s recovered subjects, it seems fair to say, was the human subject itself—and its potential in art to reveal us back to ourselves, educate our sensibility, confront our pieties, even shock us.
It is worth noting how unlikely this achievement was. Balthus’s career (he died in 2001) coincided both with the emergence of the modernist call for pure abstraction—against the representational foundation of traditional oil painting—and the postmodern insistence on the primacy of the political and conceptual. (The artist I know whose daughter enjoyed Balthus’s fairy tale visions is fond of observing how long it’s been since he regularly encountered human beings on the walls of galleries.) Balthus, a fervent admirer of Piero della Francesca and Gustave Courbet—like him, idiosyncratic, renegade explorers of the human figure—did his best to ignore such developments in the arts. And Balthus’s allegiance to the figure was matched by his allegiance to a timeless aestheticized past. There are no televisions or telephones in his work—just as there are no direct references to the historical and political upheavals he lived through. Still, Balthus could not have been entirely immune to the conditions and challenges of his time. The art-historical developments that militated against his success were augmented by the accelerating trends of mass media commercialization and distraction, not to mention the other demystifications of secular society evoked by Trilling.
How then, in short, could a contemporary painter like Balthus reconstitute the immediacy and the meaningfulness of the human subject in art? Or simply make the human figure a still-worthy object of deep aesthetic interest? And how to do so without succumbing to an impersonal, merely virtuosic realism or a disconnected, secondhand neoclassicism—that is, without falling back on and slavishly repeating the same old styles and themes of traditional oil painting? Such questions, consciously posed or not, weigh on any artist wishing to work within a representational tradition yet also wishing to create something individual and authentic. The power of Balthus’s paintings of girls and the transfixing, enraging, scandalizing hold they have had on viewers up until our present moment would appear to indicate his success, against all odds, at answering these questions for himself. They show us childhood anew, as though glimpsed in a darkly glassed mirror. And they reveal the dreamy eroticism of adolescence in all its enigmatic and arresting contradictoriness: spiritual yet sensual, innocent yet desiring, transitional yet timeless.
With respect to the criticism surrounding Balthus’s work, Davenport comments that “a culture’s sense of the erotic is a dialect, often exclusively parochial, as native to it as its sense of humor and its cooking…. The nearer an artist works to the erotic politics of his own culture, the more he gets its concerned attention.” Davenport himself was criticized for his literary imaginings of male adolescent eroticism. ↩